July 26, 2004

WHAT A coincidence! On the day the public receives the voluminous findings and recommendations of the national 9/11 commission, the Army inspector general hastily issues its voluminous, investigative report on the prisoner abuse scandal. And surprise -- the IG blamed the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq on individual soldiers and not "systemic problems."

We aren't convinced.

Not just because previous reports and records have suggested otherwise, but also because the inspector general's own work and findings lead us to question his conclusions.

The Army IG's investigation was among several that were ordered in the wake of the detainee abuse scandal. Its report, the first to be completed, was released Thursday. A team headed by Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek determined that "the failure of individuals to follow known standards of discipline and Army values and, in some cases, the failure of a few leaders to enforce those standards of discipline" led to the deaths of as many as 20 detainees and 74 other cases of suspected abuse. The inspectors also found serious problems throughout the U.S. detainee system in Iraq and Afghanistan: lack of properly trained translators and interrogators, poorly maintained and operated detention camps and confusing policies.

And here's the rub: Wouldn't supervisors and higher-ranking officials be responsible for those conditions? If individuals aren't at fault, then there's a collective failure on the part of the military. Excerpts from the 321-page report conclude as much.

In "the few cases" where treatment of a prisoner progressed "to more serious abuse," the report said, "tolerance of behavior by any level of the chain of command, even if minor, led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of abuse."

And what about this finding on Pages 38-39: "In a high-stress, high-pressure combat environment, soldiers and subordinate leaders require clear, unambiguous guidance well within established parameters that they did not have in the policies we reviewed."

Clearly, commanders didn't provide this guidance. And they weren't working from appropriate policies. Whose fault is that? If blame doesn't rest with an individual or a few or a dozen, then the system must be at fault.

And the system must be fixed.

The egregious behavior documented in photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison and other allegations of abuse may involve a minuscule fraction of the 50,000 detainees held by the United States in Iran and Afghanistan, as the Army IG's report states. And the mistreatment may be attributed to "unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals." But system-wide lapses also played a role. The fact that those failings didn't lead to more cases of abuse may very well rest with the integrity, discipline and humanity of thousands of other U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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