Allegations that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan burned the bodies of Taliban fighters couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Bush administration, already fighting legislation in Congress that would impose standards on the Pentagon’s treatment of detainees.
Lurid television pictures of the incident also may further tarnish the U.S. image in the Middle East.
Senate Republicans said the alleged U.S. troop participation goes to the heart of why Congress must pass legislation to standardize techniques used in the detention, interrogation and prosecution of detainees in the war on terrorism.
“This is a very, very serious problem,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. If U.S. troops were, in fact, involved, he said, a question must be answered: “What was the command and control that allowed this situation to happen?”
The video, purportedly showing U.S. soldiers scorching bodies of two dead Taliban fighters in the hills near the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, surfaced as the White House renewed efforts to kill or weaken the detainee legislation. The administration claims it could tie the president’s hands during wartime.
Underscoring the stakes, Vice President Dick Cheney met Thursday with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the Capitol and suggested alternative language, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.
It was the third time Cheney has discussed the detainee issue in person with McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who sponsored the legislation.
McCain said the fresh abuse allegations serve as “another argument to make sure that our men and women in the military know exactly what the parameters are for what they can and cannot do in regards to prisoners.”
The intra-party fight over the legislation and the new abuse claims come at a tenuous political time for the president.
His poll numbers have been dragged down by sluggish public support for the Iraq war and high gas prices, conservatives are in an uproar over his choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court and the president’s top aides figure prominently in the investigation of the leak of a CIA operative’s identity.
“This is devastating,” Stephen Hess, political analyst at George Washington University, said of the video.
In the midst of a public diplomacy campaign to repair the U.S. image abroad, the Bush administration on Thursday tried to stem the fallout from the fresh abuse allegations as Islamic clerics expressed outrage and warned of a possible violent anti-American backlash.
The U.S. military declared the abuse “repugnant” and vowed to investigate, while the State Department directed U.S. embassies to say the actions don’t reflect American values.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the allegations “very serious” and, if true, “very troubling.” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that burning bodies “is not anywhere close to our standard operating procedure. It’s not something that is consistent with their procedures.”
Lawmakers said even the perception of abuse could further hurt the world view of the United States, already marred by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq and claims of mistreatment of terrorism suspects at the Navy’s Guantanamo Bay jail.
“This will sort of reopen wounds that may have been partially closing in regard to the previous scandals,” Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said.
Claims of torture and abuse by U.S. troops at those two facilities prompted McCain, Warner and others to draft the detainee legislation.
The White House staunchly opposed the effort, and worked with Senate Republican leaders on alternative language for the legislation right up until the Senate voted on it earlier this month. House and Senate aides say that effort was dropped when it became clear the legislation had overwhelming support.
Ignoring a veto threat, the Senate voted 90-9 to ban the use of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners and to require U.S. service members to follow the Army Field Manual when imprisoning and questioning suspects in the war on terrorism. Senators added McCain’s legislation to a $445 billion defense spending bill.
The House did not include the detainee legislation in its version of the spending bill, and House-Senate negotiators will meet in coming weeks to write a final bill.
Support for the detainee legislation among those negotiators is shaky.
Top House Republicans have signaled that they will try to weaken the language in part because the White House threatened a veto. In recent days, the White House has been circulating alternative language.
However, the new allegations of abuse could pressure House-Senate negotiators to retain the measure as the Senate passed it.
In the meantime, McCain is reaching out to negotiators. Last week, he sent copies of the Army Field Manual to each of them along with letters of support from former Secretary of State Colin Powell and other retired military leaders.