Beyond Abu Ghraib

May 05, 2004

WHERE SHOULD we begin to decry the inhumane, unseemly treatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison? With the dearth of leadership by the Army officers overseeing the detention facility and its prisoners? The lack of directives, the gray lines of authority in operating Abu Ghraib? The rotten relationship between commanders of the military police and intelligence units manning the now infamous cellblock 1A? The questionable use of private contractors in the interrogation of prisoners of war? The alleged sadistic, criminal behavior of a handful of soldiers guarding the Iraqi detainees?

Where should we begin? At the war's start. The events surrounding the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners take us back to the beginning and the way the Bush administration went to war. The Pentagon and its military command staff may have known how to fight this war in the air and on the ground, but they were unprepared and ill equipped to manage its aftermath. If toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in less than 50 days was a "mission accomplished," the United States is now embroiled in an increasingly impossible mission to return Iraq to a secure and stable state.

A 53-page investigative report on what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison, written by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, underscores that reality. A lack of training, inadequate staffing and the reliance on reservists to do a job for which many were ill prepared contributed to the events. But nothing excuses stacking naked Iraqi prisoners in a human pyramid, forcing some to simulate or engage in sex acts, sexually assaulting others. As has been noted, nothing in basic training condones such acts. On the contrary, abuse is expressly prohibited. From the individual MPs accused in this mess to the general in charge of the prison, a sense of personal responsibility and conscience appears inexplicably - and sadly - absent.

The use of private security contractors in the Iraq war also points to the administration's failure to adequately assess its postwar needs. At least two of the private contractors accused in the Abu Ghraib abuse were translators and interrogators. Their presence at the prison raises serious questions about whether the United States should be relying on private contractors for such highly sensitive assignments.

It's unclear how - or if - such contractors would be disciplined if implicated in the mistreatment. The lack of Arabic speakers in the intelligence, military and law enforcement communities was made abundantly clear in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. agencies struggled to find the necessary expertise. If the administration couldn't assemble enough translators in the run-up to the Iraq war, it had a duty to ensure proper oversight and accountability of outside translators.

The Taguba report's finding of "systemic and illegal abuse" of detainees by "several" MPs has led some higher-ups in the military to blame the Abu Ghraib episode on the proverbial bad apples. But that won't cut it. The commander of the MP brigade implicated in the scandal oversaw 15 other detention facilities. What occurred in those prisons?

And Human Rights Watch reports that some tactics employed at Abu Ghraib - notably stripping prisoners - were in use in Afghanistan. The Army says it has 20 investigations of prisoner deaths and assaults under way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The extent of the administration's complicity cannot be overlooked.

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