Nearly 60 House Democrats yesterday urged the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to examine whether top Bush administration officials may have committed crimes in authorizing the use of harsh interrogation tactics against suspected terrorists.
In a letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, the lawmakers cited what they said is "mounting evidence" that senior officials personally sanctioned the use of waterboarding and other aggressive tactics against detainees in U.S.-run prisons overseas. An independent investigation is needed to determine whether such actions violated U.S or international law, the letter stated.
"This information indicates that the Bush administration may have systematically implemented, from the top down, detainee interrogation policies that constitute torture or otherwise violate the law," it said. The letter was signed by 56 House Democrats, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and House Intelligence Committee members Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y).
The request was prompted in part by new disclosures of high-level discussions within the Bush administration that reportedly focused on specific interrogation practices. Some of the new detail was contained in a report last month by the Justice Department's inspector general, which described a series of White House meetings in which the controversial tactics were vigorously debated.
Conyers, whose committee already is looking into the role played by administration lawyers in authorizing aggressive measures, said a broader probe is now needed.
"We need an impartial criminal investigation," said Conyers, who called the detainee controversy "a truly shameful episode" in U.S. history. "Because these apparent 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were used under cover of Justice Department legal opinions, the need for an outside special prosecutor is obvious."
Justice officials had not yet studied the letter and would not comment, said Peter Carr, a department spokesman. "The department reviews every letter received by Congress and responds appropriately," he said.
The House letter suggested a broad inquiry that would examine the consequences of administration decisions at U.S. detention sites in Iraq; at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and in former secret prisons operated by the CIA. The letter said interrogation policies had resulted in "abuse, sexual exploitation and torture" that may have violated the War Crimes Act of 1996 and the American Anti-Torture Act of 2007.
"Despite the seriousness of the evidence, the Justice Department has brought prosecution against only one civilian for an interrogation-related crime," the letter states. "Given that record, we believe it is necessary to appoint a special counsel in order to ensure that a thorough and impartial investigation occurs."
Numerous human rights groups have been calling for such an investigation for several years. Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, said the request by House members will be significant even if the request for a special counsel is refused.
"The fact that so many representatives have called for the investigation helps lay the groundwork for the inevitable reckoning and accounting that the next administration is going to have to do regarding this administration's practices," Daskal said.
© 2008 The Washington Post