Former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, leading voice on national security, dead at 87

U.S. Senator Levin departs following the weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Former U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a long-serving Democratic leader who strenuously opposed the Iraq War and investigated U.S. detainee abuse while fighting corporate fraud, has died at age 87, his family said late on Thursday.

Levin had been battling lung cancer, a diagnosis he revealed in a memoir published in March this year.

He died at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, surrounded by loved ones, according to family spokesperson Jim Townsend, director of the Wayne State University law school's Levin Center.

The Detroit native, known for his rumpled appearance and sharp mind, was the longest-serving senator ever from Michigan, elected to six consecutive six-year terms starting in 1978, when he defeated a senior incumbent Republican.

Levin long served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and led a separate investigations panel from which he grilled business executives engaged in misconduct, including the Enron scandal, then the largest case of U.S. corporate fraud on record.

In 2002, with Republican President George W. Bush moving toward a U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year, Levin tried to head off the war. He voted against authorizing the use of force and unsuccessfully offered an alternative calling on Bush to pursue a tougher U.N. weapons inspection program in Iraq.

Bush's main justification for the war was to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found. Levin also accused Pentagon official Douglas Feith of exaggerating the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, the Islamist network responsible for the 2001 attacks on the United States, in the build-up to the Iraq war.

The war descended into a long and messy counter-insurgency effort, with U.S. troops not exiting Iraq until 2011.

Levin criticized the way Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's first defense secretary, carried out the war - making the case that the Pentagon proceeded with too few troops, inadequate supplies and too little training of Iraqi forces to take over. He investigated detainee abuse during Rumsfeld's tenure.

Levin was the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel in May 2004 - Republicans controlled the Senate at the time - when Rumsfeld was called to a hearing on the emerging scandal over detainee treatment, including beatings and sexual humiliation by U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad.

"Our troops are less secure and our nation is less secure because these depraved and despicable actions will fuel the hatred and the fury of those who oppose us," he told Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld consistently blamed others for the detainee abuse. In 2009, Levin as committee chairman released a report offering detailed evidence that the military's use of such methods as stripping prisoners, placing them in "stress positions" and depriving them of sleep was approved at high levels of the Bush administration, including Rumsfeld.

He also criticized Bush's costly missile defense system.

'CAPTAIN OF THE SHIP'

On the domestic front, Levin monitored the conduct of businesses and federal agencies and worked for laws to protect whistleblowers and ensure competition in government contracting.

In 2002, he called a hearing with members of the board of Enron, the once high-flying Texas energy company that collapsed. Investors lost billions of dollars and thousands of employees lost their jobs.

"You're the board. You're the captain of the ship that went down, and you're denying any responsibility," Levin told them. "There were plenty of things you were told and that you knew which should have triggered much stronger action on your part."

In 2003, he held hearings showing how large accounting firms had created illegal tax shelters. Congress passed laws following the Enron and accounting scandals aimed at halting such abuses.

Levin held hearings in 2007 on abusive credit card industry practices, helping lead to new consumer protections.

He was among the most liberal members of the Senate, but was a defender of Michigan's auto industry. Levin tried to marshal federal aid for automakers during the 2007-2008 financial crisis and resisted efforts by fellow Democrats on vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.

"I consider myself pro-business," he told BusinessWeek magazine in 2002. "I'm a pro-growth guy. When businesses participate in deceptive practices, we've got to change that. It's important to have cops on the beat."

His brother Sander Levin, three years his senior, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, representing the Detroit suburbs. In 2010, when Carl Levin led the Armed Services panel and his brother headed a House panel, they became the first brothers since 1881 to serve as congressional committee chairmen at the same time.

Levin was born in Detroit on June 28, 1934. After Harvard Law School, he worked as a civil rights lawyer and public defender before being elected to the Detroit City Council in 1969. He later served as council president before running for the Senate in 1978.

"It's been a long and wonderful run," Levin, known for wearing his eyeglasses at the end of his nose, said after winning re-election in 2008 at age 74. In 2013, he announced he would not seek re-election in 2014.

Levin married his wife, Barbara, in 1961. They had three daughters.

(Reporting by Will Dunham in Washington; additional reporting by Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Editing by Steve Gorman and Jacqueline Wong)

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