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House Democrats Begin Iraq Abuse Inquiry

June 04, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senior House Democrats, stymied in their efforts to formally investigate abuse of Iraqi prisoners, accused their Republican colleagues Thursday of being more interested in protecting the White House during an election year than in getting to the bottom of the scandal.

"There just appears to be a pattern of Republicans refusing to hold oversight hearings on any issue where the administration might be embarrassed," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Waxman and five other ranking House Democrats launched their own inquiry with a request to the White House for documents related to the scandal. But the minority Democrats, lacking subpoena power, cannot readily compel Pentagon officials to show up at hearings or turn over documents without the consent of the Republican majority.

A spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the speaker was interested in getting the facts but believed that Democrats were interested in undertaking an election-year "political witch hunt."

A White House spokesman said that the Pentagon was already investigating the matter and that further inquiries could compromise the investigation -- and prosecution -- of people involved in the prisoner abuse scandal.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is conducting its own bipartisan investigation, which has included aggressive questioning by Republicans and Democrats.

The six House Democrats sent President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld a letter asking for records related to the treatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and at other U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among the documents sought are autopsy reports of detainees, reports by Red Cross prison inspectors and the military's interrogation guidelines.

Without an investigation, the Democrats wrote, lawmakers "cannot adequately assess the deteriorating situation in Iraq or the prospects for the future of our endeavors there.... It is hard to see how we can win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people if we neglect our constitutional oversight responsibilities."

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said that the president fully supported the Pentagon investigation and that any request for documents should be sent to the Defense Department.

During the House's consideration of a defense bill last month, Waxman sought to establish a special House panel to investigate prisoner abuse. But the measure was defeated by the Republican majority on a largely party-line vote.

At the time, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said his panel had conducted a hearing with Rumsfeld. He added: "Does the gentleman want another 15 hearings? Maybe we should cancel every piece of congressional business for the entire year so that the issue at Abu Ghraib can be milked until the election."

The letter to Bush was signed by six ranking Democrats: Ike Skelton of Missouri, who is on the House Armed Services Committee; Waxman, on the Government Reform Committee; Jane Harman of Venice, on the Intelligence Committee; Tom Lantos of San Mateo, on the International Relations Committee; John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, on the Judiciary Committee; and David R. Obey of Wisconsin, on the Appropriations Committee.

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