SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- U.S. Justice Department officials have come under fire for hiring a former Utah prison boss with a history of human rights complaints to oversee prisons in Iraq.
O. Lane McCotter, 63, was in Baghdad from May to September last year overseeing the reconstruction of Abu Ghraib as part of a team picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft. He was corrections director in Texas from 1985-87, New Mexico from 1987-91 and Utah from 1992-97.
McCotter advocated the use of restraining chairs in Utah prisons, causing the death in 1997 of a mentally ill inmate who spent 16 hours strapped to one. He resigned from his post two months later, and the department subsequently stopped using the chairs.
In October 1988, a court-appointed prison monitor accused New Mexico state prison officials of erasing a portion of a videotape of a prison disturbance to cover up acts of brutality. McCotter accused the prison monitor of "fabricating atrocities," and said he believed the tape erasure was accidental.
McCotter's critics say the pictures of abuse and humiliation at Abu Ghraib are eerily similar to video and written records that detail the plight of bound and naked Utah prisoners in the former isolation chamber at Utah's Point of the Mountain prison.
"If our government had a serious commitment to the humane treatment of prisoners, why would they send somebody to Iraq with a history of hostility to prisoner rights?" Carol Gnade, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Utah who battled McCotter, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "What it shows is the U.S. government really doesn't take civil rights abuses in our own prison systems seriously."
McCotter has condemned the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, but told the Tribune he's also angry about sweeping condemnations of the U.S. military.
"We worked with military police every day," McCotter said. "We traveled with them, they helped us, and they provided the security so we could get (Abu Ghraib) open and operational ... The military police are literally on the front lines every day in Iraq. They were absolutely essential to everything we were doing."
McCotter has said his primary duty in Iraq was to evaluate the structural status of the prisons, and that he did not train guards.
Congress, meanwhile, is asking questions about how Ashcroft, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chose the civil contractors who worked with the military intelligence teams at Abu Ghraib.
Lawmakers also want to know how Ashcroft found McCotter, whose selection is reviving outrage about the spotty history of human rights in U.S. prisons.
McCotter insists he can't recall who from the Bush administration asked him to go to Iraq.
"I'm retired military, my name probably surfaced from that," he says. "I got a call from them and they said I'd been recommended. I have no idea who."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)