Investigating prisoner abuse in the past

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Audio Transcript:

JEB SHARP: As we just heard, the Attorney General is recommending the re-opening of nearly a dozen prisoner-abuse cases, a reversal of Bush administration policy. Scott Horton is a Professor at Columbia University Law School. He says at this point, there aren't too many details on those prisoner-abuse cases.

SCOTT HORTON: The best known, by far, comes out of Abu Ghraib, and it relates to a prisoner named Manadel al-Jamadi, who was also known as the Iceman. He's someone who was delivered Abu Ghraib, [INDISCERNIBLE] was stored in ice. We know that he was handled by a group of navy seals, but that he died in CIA custody, and there was a military inquiry involving the fields that resulted in some disciplinary action, but certainly no homicide prosecution. And we know there are roughly a dozen other cases that involve people dying while they were in custody.

JEB SHARP: So, what are the implications of these cases being re-opened? And does it mean talking about only CIA interrogators being investigated, or could the investigation go further up the food chain?

SCOTT HORTON: Yeah, well those are the two major questions. First of all, why is a decision being taken now on the investigations? Well, we know that the CIA inspector general Henderson identified each of these cases, and insisted that they go to the justice department for proper criminal investigation. So, the CIA inspector general effectively did his work. What happened to the justice department? All these cases were sent to the eastern district of Virginia, which has a long special track record of dealing with CIA cases. And what happened there? Not much evidently. In fact, here we had one member of the staff there referring to their function as a dead leather office, that is, they received these complaints, but really didn't take any action on them. And now, the justice department, after reviewing what happened, has decided that, you know, that's really not acceptable. There does have to be a proper homicide investigation.

JEB SHARP: What do you think is at stake here in reopening these cases?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think the attorney general wants to put blinders on the special prosecutor, to vary narrowly circumscribe it. But can he do that? No, he can't. A special prosecutor whose worth [INDISCERNIBLE], is going to go fully investigate these cases, and follow the factual leads wherever they take him. And that my very well wind up implicating senior officials, the administration indeed, even people in the White House. So, I think all of these questions will wind up being examined by the special prosecutor, which is not to say, necessarily, that charges are gonna be brought in the end of the day, but I think certainly there's at least an outside chance that we'll see prosecution of administration officials, based on advice they gave, or actions they took.

JEB SHARP: So, why is this change happening now? You know, is it simply a case of new administration, new people in positions making fresh decisions? I mean, how arbitrary is this?

SCOTT HORTON: I really don't think it's arbitrary at all, in fact it's almost the other way around. It's in the last administration, basically a stick was put in the wheel, to stop the wheel of justice from turning. Basically, political decisions were made to stop criminal investigations from happening. The ethics office at the justice department has looked into what happened, they've pretty clearly have made that call right now. And I think what Holder is saying, you really can't do that, we have to take the stick out, and now the investigation has to occur.

JEB SHARP: And what about the new CIA Chief, Leon Pinneta? How's he reacting to all of this?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, it's clear that he didn't wanna see a criminal investigation occur, but in fact today, he's just issued a statement to his staff, in which he's telling them that this report's being issued, and he's really preparing them to expect that there's gonna be a criminal investigation coming out of this. So, while he's working hard to build report within the organization, he's also trying to reconcile them to a new regime, and a new way of doing things, and on much higher degree of accountability.

JEB SHARP: Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harpers Magazine, and a law professor at Columbia University. Thanks so much for talking to us.

SCOTT HORTON: Great to be with you.