CINCINNATI -- John F. Kerry said yesterday he would appoint a prominent, independent public figure such as John McCain or Bob Dole to investigate allegations of torture by US soldiers during the war on terror, abuse that he suggested was an outgrowth of the Bush administration's liberal interpretation of the Geneva Conventions.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, speaking with reporters for the first time in two weeks, said such an investigation is needed to assure the world that the United States remains committed to human rights and to protect its future prisoners of war from similar abuse.
''Torture is not acceptable. Period," Kerry said after his campaign charter touched down in Covington, Ky., so he could attend a fund-raiser across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.
''I think the president is underestimating the full impact of what has happened in the world to our reputation because of that prison scandal. The president himself gave a speech in which he said, `Oh, it's just a few people.' But now, already, we've seen it's not just a few people, and there are serious questions about how high it goes," Kerry added. ''I believe that it's vital for us to prove to the world that this is really not going to be swept under the rug; . . . we're going to prove to the world we're willing to show that we will hold people accountable."
Kerry suggested that the inquiry could be led by McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona and former prisoner of war, or Dole, another veteran and former Republican senator. He also mentioned Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, and former senators George J. Mitchell of Maine and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire as possible picks.
Kerry noted that the administration ''took themselves outside of even the prisoner abuse law that was passed," which raises ''very, very serious questions about the messages that went out to leadership within the military, and especially -- ultimately -- to the rank and file." Around the world, Kerry said, ''our moral authority has been tarnished as a consequence of what's happened."
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for President Bush's reelection committee, said the criticism, as well as comments Kerry made about the economy earlier in the day, reflected the ''misery and pessimism" of the Democratic campaign. ''It's another example of John Kerry exploiting the war on terror and the prisoner abuse situation for political gain."
Kerry offered his torture condemnation in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and recent news stories about an August 2002 Justice Department memorandum declaring ''torture may be justified" in the war on terrorism. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in subsequent testimony before Congress, ''This administration rejects torture," but critics have said its exploration of the limits of the Geneva Conventions created an atmosphere that could have precipitated the abuse of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.
During his 15-minute news conference, Kerry also was asked about a weekend report that Bush asked Vatican officials during his recent visit to Rome to help him back US politicians who support church teachings on such political issues as abortion rights.
''I think it was entirely and extraordinarily inappropriate, and I think it speaks for itself," Kerry said of the request.
Kerry also rejected calls from two Republicans, Dole and Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, to resign his Senate seat because he was missing votes in the Capitol while he is on the campaign trail.
Earlier in the day, in a speech to the New Jersey chapter of the AFL-CIO, Kerry cast himself as the guardian of the middle class, pledging to protect its economic interests if elected president and describing the 2004 election as one about values and morals.
He renewed his vows to increase the minimum wage, halve the federal budget deficit during his first term, and make health care and college tuition more affordable. He accused Bush and his party of faulty morals and values for supposedly favoring the rich and powerful over the more modest both in financial and social terms.
''On Nov. 2, let's send a message about the values of this country -- the real values, not the spoken values, but the lived values of this country," the senator said. ''This reckless deficit will not be put on the backs of veterans, cops, and firefighters. It will not be put on the backs of women and children in need. The price of these deficits will not be paid by the poor. Let me tell you my fundamental value: You don't make America strong by attacking the weak."
At another point in his 38-minute address, Kerry said: ''Our tax code has gone from 14 pages to 17,000 pages. Any of you got your own page? I mean,
As laughter rippled through the crowd of several hundred, which included New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey and Senator Jon S. Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, Kerry added: ''I just think it's wrong for middle-class Americans to be saddled with endless debt and deficits, while those fortunate among us walk away with billions in tax cuts. Where does that value come from? As president, I'm going to fight to put America's tax code in line with our moral code."
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.