WASHINGTON - Detainee abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib prison were the unauthorized "extracurricular activity" of soldiers working the nightshift at the Iraq facility, but leadership failures up the chain of command contributed to the scandal, an independent panel reported yesterday.
Military commanders in Iraq failed to properly train or supervise the overworked and ill-prepared soldiers who served as guards, the panel of civilian defense experts said in its report, which also concluded that top-ranking Pentagon leaders failed to anticipate or swiftly react to problems at the notorious prison near Baghdad.
"The weaknesses were well known, and corrective actions could have been taken and should have been taken," James R. Schlesinger, a former defense secretary and chairman of the four-person review panel, said at a Pentagon news conference.
The panel's 92-page report was the first from a series of investigations into the prison abuse scandal to place any blame beyond the prison walls.
Another report, a long-awaited Army investigation to be released today, is expected to implicate about two dozen military intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors, but to spare from punishment anyone above the colonel who commanded them at Abu Ghraib.
The question of how high responsibility for the scandal could reach has been a central point since the first photographs emerged four months ago showing naked Iraqi detainees forced into sexually humiliating positions or cowering from military working dogs.
One panel member, Tillie Fowler, a Republican former congresswoman from Florida, said yesterday's report identified a "string of failures that go well beyond an isolated cell block in Iraq."
The report singled out for criticism the former commanding general in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, saying that he "should have taken stronger action [last] November when he realized the extent of the leadership problems at Abu Ghraib."
But the report said there was no U.S. policy that condoned torture or abuse, and it did not recommend disciplinary action against any military or civilian leaders.
When asked, Schlesinger also said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appointed the panel, should not step down because of the scandal.
"His resignation would be a boon to all of America's enemies," Schlesinger said.
The panel had no authority to determine whether crimes were committed. So far, the only individuals to face criminal charges in the scandal are seven low-ranking soldiers from the Western Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company.
One has pleaded guilty and been sentenced to a year in jail; a second has announced his intention to plead guilty to some charges.
Most of those soldiers have claimed the abuses were directed by higher-ranking intelligence officers. That notion gained some support in yesterday's report, which concluded that "military intelligence personnel share responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib with the military police soldiers."
But the report also described the photographed abuses as "acts of brutality and purposeless sadism" with no intelligence-gathering purpose. Schlesinger called the abuses the "freelance activities" of one group of prison guards, saying, "It was kind of Animal House on the night shift."
The report made clear that the photographed abuses were not the only acts of violence against prisoners under U.S. control.
300 cases reported
About 300 incidents of prisoner abuse have been reported to the military, the report said. Out of 155 completed investigations, 66 found abuses had occurred among prisoners under U.S. control. Most of those cases - 55 - were in Iraq; three were from Afghanistan and eight from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The report said that about one-third of those cases were related to the interrogation of prisoners, but the panel members said they could not offer further details because they did not investigate individual cases.
More details could come in the report dealing with military intelligence methods at the prison that is expected to be released today. Yesterday's report noted that the intelligence probe had identified, for instance, "a number of abuses related to using muzzled and unmuzzled dogs during interrogations [as well as] dog use unrelated to interrogations, apparently for the sadistic pleasure of the MPs involved in these incidents."
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has said he will hold hearings early next month on the findings of both investigations. Some Democratic lawmakers began weighing in yesterday - Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said yesterday's findings showed that, "at a minimum, there was gross negligence at the highest levels in the Pentagon."
The report faulted top military officials for not anticipating the violent insurgency that followed the initial combat phase in Iraq and for allowing some interrogation tactics intended only for limited use at Guantanamo Bay to "migrate" to Iraq without proper safeguards.
The panel recommended that the military re-examine how prisoners are treated and interrogated in what it called the "new era of warfare." Schlesinger and another panel member, retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, raised concerns that the prison abuse scandal had hurt U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts in recent months.
"In a war against terrorists, human intelligence is probably the most important thing we can operate with," Horner said.
Appointed by Rumsfeld in May, the panel quickly made clear its independence. Its members launched a broad review and hired investigators to conduct interviews with active-duty personnel in Iraq as well as Pentagon officials.