Sen. John McCain, decrying new allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq by U.S. soldiers, on Sunday backed an amendment to force the American military to live up to its international obligations under the Geneva Convention and “not engage in torture” of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain (R-Ariz.) was responding to complaints by Army Capt. Ian Fishback and two sergeants, who all served with the 82nd Airborne Division. Their description of routine harsh treatment of captives in Iraq parallels the abuse caught in photographs at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and was contained in a Human Rights Watch report issued Friday by the advocacy group.
“We’ve got to have it stopped. It is hurting America’s image abroad,” McCain said on ABC’s “This Week” program.
The senator said his staff on the Armed Services Committee was investigating the allegations. That is in addition to a felony probe at Ft. Bragg, N.C. -- home to the 82nd Airborne -- by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command and an administrative review by the Army inspector general’s office.
“I don’t know if these allegations are true,” McCain said. “But they have to be investigated. We’ve got to make it clear to the world that America doesn’t do it. It’s not about prisoners. It’s about us.”
Fishback and the sergeants said prisoners taken during the siege of Fallouja were kicked and beaten, their bones broken and skin and eyes doused with chemical irritants. In addition, some prisoners were forced to form human pyramids, and others were made to hold heavy water jugs with their arms outstretched.
The two sergeants, one of whom has since left the Army, have not been named. Fishback remains at Ft. Bragg, where he is available to assist in the investigations.
In a lengthy chronology set down on his computer after he left Iraq in April 2004, Fishback said he tried unsuccessfully to get the Army to recognize it was skirting the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture. He further complained that officers were not being properly trained how to handle prisoners.
But he said he was rebuffed by his chain of command, and after 17 months approached Human Rights Watch, which helped put him in touch with the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a Sept. 16 letter to McCain, Fishback outlined his concerns.
“I tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command,” he wrote. “Instead of resolving my concerns,” he added, the Army “leaves me deeply troubled.”
In his letter, Fishback also said the abuses were tarnishing the U.S. image abroad. “We are America,” he wrote. “Our actions should be held to a higher standard.”
He added, “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.’ ”
McCain, himself a victim of torture while a prisoner during the Vietnam War, made it clear Sunday that he did not believe that the military, including Pentagon leaders, had gotten the message that the United States must obey the Geneva Convention and abstain from torture.
He said he and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another committee member, were proposing an amendment to a defense bill requiring the military to abide by the Geneva dictates.
McCain noted too that he wanted prohibitions against torture underscored in the Army Field Manual, which he said “is the document that the Army goes by and the military goes by when in the process of interrogation and treatment of prisoners.”
Told that the White House was opposed to such an amendment and that the president might veto the bill if the amendment were included, McCain said he was unsure whether there were enough votes in the Senate to override it.
“I hope,” he said of the Bush administration, “that they will understand why we’re trying to do this and why it’s so important to America’s image in the world.”
The senator also suggested that continued allegations of abuse only turned more Americans against the war in Iraq. On Saturday, more than 100,000 protesters marched in Washington against the war.
“They’re unhappy about a number of aspects of the war, and with some justification,” McCain said. “Some serious mistakes were made.”