Reports fault lack of foresight by officials

Failure to predict might of insurgency left guards untrained, overwhelmed

Army Report On Prisoner Abuses At Abu Ghraib

August 26, 2004|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The unexpectedly fierce hostilities that flared in Iraq soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein helped pave the way for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, with U.S. forces ill-equipped and undermanned to handle a growing insurgency and a burgeoning detainee population.

That was one of the central themes to emerge from the report issued yesterday by an investigative team of three Army generals on the mistreatment of detainees at the infamous prison outside Baghdad.

U.S. forces thought they would be operating in "a relatively non-hostile environment," the report says. "In fact, opposition was robust, and hostilities continued throughout the period under investigation."

Without directly saying so, the report suggests that the situation at Abu Ghraib - "Animal House on the night shift," as James R. Schlesinger described it a day earlier - was rooted in the failure of President Bush's senior civilian and military advisers to foresee the chaos that would engulf Iraq after Hussein was toppled.

Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, led a different independent commission that minced few words in finding fault with a military presided over by a successor several times removed, Donald H. Rumsfeld, the current Pentagon chief, even though Rumsfeld created the panel.

"Any defense establishment should adapt quickly to new conditions as they arise, and in this case we were slow, at least in the judgment of the members of this panel, to adapt accordingly after the insurgency started in the summer of 2002," Schlesinger told reporters Tuesday in announcing the findings of his commission.

The two reports make clear that the president's declaration aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 last year that major combat had ended was less a valid claim of victory than a sign that he and his top advisers failed to recognize what lay ahead.

As a consequence, the reports indicate, the U.S. military was unprepared for prolonged post-war hostilities, was forced to scramble to contain the insurgency and, at least at the higher levels of command, was preoccupied with matters of seemingly greater urgency than the treatment of detainees.

At the same time, some of those detainees were thought to possibly possess "actionable intelligence" - that is, information that could help coalition forces root out the insurgents and save the lives of U.S. troops.

As American deaths mounted in the fall, higher-ups put pressure on guards and interrogators to gain information from prisoners. But because poor planning had left key units undermanned, many soldiers at Abu Ghraib were overworked and untrained for such duty.

The Army report singles out Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, who ran the interrogation and detention center at Abu Ghraib. Although praising him for "personal bravery" and for looking after his troops, the report says Jordan was a "poor choice" to run the center because his experience over the past decade had been in civil affairs.

When the president announced the conclusion of major combat below a banner that proclaimed "Mission Accomplished," he coupled it with a warning that much hard fighting lay ahead. By then, 138 Americans had died in Iraq from hostile fire and accidents. The total is now edging toward 1,000, and no one is saying the mission is nearing completion.

Military planners, influenced by favored Iraqi exiles, had seemingly anticipated a post-war reception akin to the garlands of flowers and posters saying "Welcome to the Gallant Marines" that greeted the first American ground forces who sloshed ashore in March 1965 in a land then known as South Vietnam.

Little more than 10 years later, South Vietnam was nothing but a memory, just as the joyous welcome the Pentagon expected for its liberating army has proved a figment of the imagination, the victim of a bloody insurgency that has made the notion of a peaceful, democratic and functioning Iraq a continuing quest.

The result has also been Abu Ghraib, a name synonymous with digital photographs beamed around the world of naked Iraqi detainees being threatened or taunted by soldiers of a Western Maryland-based Army Reserve unit, the 372nd Military Police Company.

Gen. Paul J. Kern, briefing reporters yesterday on the Army report, which focused on the complicity of military intelligence personnel in the Abu Ghraib abuses, began by reviewing "the context" for the abuses.

Kern, who led the Army panel, pointed out that when Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez took over as the senior American commander in Iraq in the middle of last year, about two months after the president declared major combat over, "there was an expectation that the number of detainees would decline, not increase. In fact, what we found was during this ... period they increased."

The detainee population rose from about 600 early last summer to more than 6,000 by February. "The challenge," Kern said, "was a mismatch between the number of detainees, the number of people to secure the facilities and the number of people to conduct interrogations."

Schlesinger had noted that the ratio of detainees to guards at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was 1-to-1, while at Abu Ghraib it was 75-to-1.

But while those who perpetrated the mistreatment at Abu Ghraib may have been overburdened and unable to cope, neither set of investigators spared them. The Army report called them "morally corrupt" and said their actions ranged "from inhumane to sadistic." The Schlesinger panel described their behavior as "acts of brutality and purposeless sadism."

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