Congress's Inquiry Into Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners Bogs Down

By ERIC SCHMITT

The New York Times

July 16, 2004

WASHINGTON, July 15 - The Congressional investigation into the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison has virtually ground to halt, as a senior Senate Republican said Thursday that no new hearings would be held on the matter until this fall at the earliest.

The Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee made it clear weeks ago that it believed that the several current military investigations of the scandal were sufficient, and that summoning commanders to Washington would only hinder American operations in Iraq.

That left the issue to the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, has held a series of hearings, but none since May 19. On Thursday, Mr. Warner said he would hold off calling any more witnesses until several criminal prosecutions and seven pending Pentagon inquiries were completed.

But some of those inquiries are running weeks behind. The pivotal investigation of the role that American military intelligence officials played in the abuses, which officials once expected to wrap up in June, now is not likely to be completed and reviewed by senior Pentagon officials until mid-August. Congress will soon recess until September.

"We're not in a position to try to have an independent investigation at this point," Mr. Warner told reporters after senators received a classified briefing on Thursday on Red Cross reports about detention operations at American-run prisons in Iraq. "There are so many ongoing investigations going on, we cannot in any way jeopardize the right of individuals being investigated."

Other factors also are behind the delay: the calendar, the preferences of some of Mr. Warner's Republican colleagues and the pace of the military investigations, many of which are behind schedule. All seem to be conspiring to thwart his desire to hold hearings on the matter.

Many Democrats and some Republicans, like Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona, have pressed to push ahead to get to the bottom of the abuses. Senator Collins supported further hearings, saying, "I think there are some serious unanswered questions."

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the Pentagon approach seemed to have "slowed things down rather than speed things up." He said the Senate found itself in the awkward position of having to wait for reports that it needed as the basis for hearings.

But House Republicans and, privately, some Senate Republicans say Mr. Warner, by holding more hearings, would only hand Democrats an explosive campaign issue.

For its part, the Pentagon has played to Mr. Warner's military sensibilities - he is a former secretary of the Navy - and urged him not to take any steps that could upset the overlapping military reviews or the military justice system.

When pressed Thursday to give a schedule of when hearings might resume, Mr. Warner expressed frustration and replied testily: "I can't give you a schedule. Take a look at all those investigations. What can you do until they are finished?"

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he agreed with Mr. Warner on putting off more hearings, but said investigators must search for culpability among higher-ranking officers and officials. "The idea that only five or six privates and sergeants are legally exposed is unacceptable," Mr. Graham said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Warner said he was trying to schedule a broader hearing on Iraq for next week with L. Paul Bremer III, who stepped down last month as the senior civilian administrator in Iraq. But committee officials conceded that Mr. Bremer was unlikely to give up vacation time to be pummeled by senators' questioning.

Among the other witnesses Mr. Warner said he might like to call after the Senate's August recess is William J. Haynes, the general counsel of the Defense Department.

Senator Reed said there might be an incentive outside of Capitol Hill to have some of the military reports come out when Congress is gone, diminishing their impact.

Interest in the issue among senators may be waning. About 10 senators from both parties attended the briefing held on Thursday to update lawmakers on the status of the seven pending inquiries and on the Red Cross reports.

Mr. Warner said 24 of 25 reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross on detention centers in Iraq had been made available to lawmakers by Pentagon officials. The reports, which are usually kept secret to protect the rights of prisoners and to ensure that human rights experts have continued access to prisons, were provided to the Senate committee on Thursday and to its House counterpart on Wednesday.

But aides familiar with the reports said they did not add any significant new information beyond what was contained in a highly critical report completed in February. That report said that as far back as May 2003, the Red Cross had complained to military officials about abuses.

At the briefing on Thursday, the Pentagon also provided senators with updated figures on investigations of the death or abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The military has opened 41 death investigations; 15 are still pending. Of the 135 inquiries into other abuses, 54 are still pending.

Carl Hulse contributed reporting for this article.