House Panel Kills Bill Seeking Documents

By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

ep. Howard "Buck" McKeon and his Republican colleagues shot down a proposal to ask the Defense Department to deliver all information about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib to the House of Representatives.
    A spokesman for McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, said the proposal could have threatened the integrity of ongoing investigations and compromise evidence that might be used in later prosecutions.
    The bill, HR 640 by Rep. Chris Bell, a first-term Democrat from Texas, failed along party lines Monday in the House Armed Services Committee.
    A bipartisan substitute amendment from the committee's ranking Democrat, Ike Skelton of Missouri, and Republican Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, died 28-21.
    Bell's legislative director, Justin Hamilton, said Tuesday that the legislation was needed "because that's (Congress') job, to get the information, to act in an oversight capacity."
    But McKeon spokesman Vartan Djihanian said the Defense Department "has already provided the bulk of the information" the bill requested.
    "Members of the (Armed Services) committee have been able to review the information and comment about it," he said.
    McKeon is the eighth-ranking Republican on the 61-member committee.
    The bill sought the release of "any picture, photograph, video, communication, or report produced in conjunction" with Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's investigation of prisoner abuse. The backup documentation to Taguba's widely disseminated summary comprises about 6,000 pages and is still considered classified, although portions keep being leaked to the press.
    The House and Senate are following separate tracks. According to published reports, the Senate Armed Services Committee has asked the Defense Department for all relevant documents.
    The chairman of the House panel, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, deemed HR 640 unnecessary.
    "Duplicating ongoing investigations ... will not ensure that justice is done any more quickly," he told the committee.
    The Defense Department "has promised additional briefings as the situation develops," he said.
    The bipartisan substitute plan involved additional documents, including the contracts of civilians who worked at Abu Ghraib as interrogators and translators.
    Two civilian contract workers, John B. Israel of Canyon Country and Steven A. Stefanowicz of Philadelphia, were accused by Taguba of sharing responsibility for the prisoner abuse.
    Djihanian said McKeon believes it is premature for Congress to request information that the Defense Department is still gathering and analyzing.
    "The Defense Department has not completed any investigation of any alleged contractor abuse," he said. "Transmitting evidence could compromise their prosecution ... if that evidence is used down the line."
    Monday's vote wasn't the first time Bell was rebuffed on matters involving Abu Ghraib. He had earlier called on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to place all investigations under the purview of the department's Inspector General.
    "The Inspector General is the only person in the Pentagon who is statutorily required to report to Congress any gross violation of the law," said Bell's spokesman, Hamilton.
    "There are 11 separate (Defense Department) investigations going on and nobody is coordinating them," he said. "For all we know, we've got 11 different people running in 11 different directions."