- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

The chairman of the board of Amnesty International USA refused yesterday to retract the group’s statement that the U.S. detention facility in Cuba is the “gulag of our time,” instead telling a congressional panel the United States is to blame for an increase in terrorism.

“It’s the government’s own reports, it’s the reams of government memos that show we created a black hole, and the same principles or practices that were at play in the gulag — disappearances, putting people in the gulag, stripping them, beating them — these were practices that people that were there, we are now seeing in Guantanamo,” Chip Pitts told the House Judiciary Committee.

His testimony was one flash point in a bitter morning hearing that left Republicans charging that Democrats were going beyond the scope of the investigation in order to embarrass President Bush, and left Democrats demanding an apology after Republicans kept to strict time limits then abruptly cut off the committee microphones after the hearing in the middle of an impromptu Democratic press conference.

Three weeks ago, Amnesty released a report harshly critical of U.S. human rights policy in the war on terror. It compared the U.S. detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the gulag, the Soviet-era work camps in which millions of people are believed to have died from forced work or planned murder.

Yesterday Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said Amnesty should either retract or clarify its comments.

“To suggest that in all of the world, the gulag of our times is not the death camps that are the natural progeny of the gulags of the Soviet empire that exist today in North Korea but that Guantanamo Bay is, that seems to me, as I said, anti-historical, irresponsible and the type of rhetoric that endangers American lives,” Mr. Pence said.

But Mr. Pitts did not back down.

“It’s not Amnesty that is putting the United States in this position, and it’s not just Amnesty’s reports,” he said.

Mr. Pitts also pointed to studies that he said show an increase in terrorism, and said that’s the result of American abuses: “I think that’s more than just a correlation, it’s causation.”

Mr. Bush has called Amnesty’s charges “absurd” and challenged the credibility of the organization, but Mr. Pitts said U.S. policy is absurd.

“I think it’s absurd for the United States to create a legal black hole, and it’s time to fill in that legal black hole and shut Guantanamo,” he said.

Mr. Pence said afterward that Mr. Pitts’ answers did not defend comparing the U.S. record to the gulag.

“I found it woefully inadequate,” he said. “His response to 20 million murdered civilians in the gulag [was] he referred to one death under questionable circumstances at Guantanamo.”

Democrats on the committee invited Mr. Pitts and three other witnesses to testify as part of a series of hearings on the Patriot Act, invoking a rarely used right of the minority party.

But Republicans, afraid the witnesses would spend their time bashing U.S. policy across the board instead of focusing on the 16 provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of this year, kept a tight rein on the hearing. Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, kept to strict time limits for the hearing, even cutting off witnesses who went over the time.

“I think this hearing very, very clearly shows what the opponents of the Patriot Act are doing. They’ll talk about practically everything but what’s in the Patriot Act and what this committee is considering,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said at the end of the hearing before gaveling the meeting closed and cutting off the pleas of committee Democrats who were demanding extra time to speak.

As Mr. Sensenbrenner left the hearing room an aide signaled to a technician to cut the microphones, leaving Democrats and the witnesses to complain to the press and what was left of the audience.

One witness, James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said Republicans’ behavior was offensive to him and was counterproductive at a time when “we are lecturing foreign governments about the conduct of their behavior with regard to opposition.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, later demanded that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, force the chairman to apologize to the witnesses.

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