Pentagon at fault

August 26, 2004

THEY DIDN'T STACK naked Iraqi prisoners in a human pyramid or shove black hoods over detainees' heads or capture this disturbing conduct in photographs. But senior Pentagon officials and military commanders in Washington and Iraq nonetheless bear responsibility for the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners because of their own failures and miscalculations. That's the critical assessment of an independent panel that reviewed the role of top civilian and military officials in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The findings should end the Bush administration's insistence that a few rogue soldiers were solely to blame.

Chaired by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, the panel couldn't say more plainly who was at fault: "The abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline. There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels." If skeptics doubted the ability of the Schlesinger commission to follow the errors up the chain of command, they were wrong.

Although it didn't directly blame Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the panel determined that the administration's missteps contributed to the events that unfolded at Abu Ghraib. The panel confirmed what previous reviews had identified as root causes of the scandal: confusing policies on interrogation techniques approved in Washington; poor leadership and supervision in Iraq; inadequate training of military police; insufficient staffing at Abu Ghraib prison; lax oversight by immediate supervisors.

In many respects, the underlying failure was a lack of postwar planning. It underscored the chief criticisms against Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top field commander in Iraq. Leadership issues at Abu Ghraib demanded a tougher response when first identified, but General Sanchez was preoccupied with fighting an insurgency that had been woefully underestimated.

Where the Schlesinger commission differed from previous reviews is the nexus between intelligence-gathering and the Abu Ghraib abuse. It found no link, but noted that the Central Intelligence Agency refused commission investigators "full access" to information. Yesterday, an Army review of the role of intelligence-gathering in the scandal blamed some of the abuse on the latitude given "other government" agents (a euphemism for the CIA) in questioning prisoners. It identified 27 intelligence unit members - including four outside contractors - who were at fault.

Neither report will close the books on Abu Ghraib. Nor should they - not yet. Recent reports that medical personnel in the prison contributed to the cover-up of the abuse should be investigated fully. Where was their moral compass? Lawyers for soldiers charged in the scandal are pursuing evidence of complicity by intelligence officers and higher-ups. But the outcomes of the trials won't change the Pentagon's primary responsibility in the aftermath of the abuse scandal: to ensure that its policies on prisoner detainees exemplify human rights standards and that its military personnel are trained properly to carry them out.

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