Pentagon finds top officials have no direct blame for detainee abuse

Investigation faults lack of interrogation guidelines

March 09, 2005|By Mark Mazzetti | Mark Mazzetti,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The latest Pentagon review of military detainee mistreatment criticizes U.S. officials for failing to set clear interrogation guidelines but concludes that Pentagon officials and senior commanders were not directly responsible for the widespread abuses, according to Defense Department and congressional sources.

The investigation by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church, the Navy's inspector general, has found no evidence that top officials ordered the harsh treatment of detainees in prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yet, it chronicles a number of instances in which more active Pentagon oversight of military prisons could have prevented abuses such as those that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the sources said.

"While authorized interrogation techniques have not been a causal factor in detainee abuse, we have nonetheless identified a number of missed opportunities in the policy development process," the investigation concludes, according to one source who quoted from the report.

One "missed opportunity" cited was the Pentagon's failure to give interrogators in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq, a clear set of interrogation guidelines once soldiers began capturing hundreds of prisoners.

Another occurred in 2002, when new interrogation techniques for the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo were approved despite the objections of senior military lawyers who feared they could lead to abuse. Although the Pentagon later rescinded many of the physically stressful techniques, a Pentagon inquiry last year found that harsh interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay "migrated" to prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 368-page report by Church, portions of which will be publicly released tomorrow, is part of a broad investigation into military prisons ordered by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. It is the sixth major report on abuses completed since last year, with three others remaining.

Unlike the investigation into military police soldiers conducted last spring by Maj. Gen Antonio M. Taguba, and a subsequent probe into intelligence soldiers by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay and Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones, the Church report is not an investigation of possible criminal activity and recommends no new charges.

"It's a `mistakes-were-made' kind of report, instead of a `these-people-are-responsible' report," a congressional aide said.

A report last summer by the Army's inspector general, Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, described the prisoner abuse cases as "aberrations" committed by a handful of unruly soldiers, not part of a systemic failure. Two months later, an outside panel led by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger harshly criticized Rumsfeld and other civilian leaders for failing to provide consistent, specific policies on the treatment of detainees.

Schlesinger's report also chastised Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former U.S. ground commander in Iraq, and other military leaders for not properly training and staffing units to guard and interrogate prisoners at the facility outside Baghdad.

Pentagon officials said that Church's team drew its conclusions from a review of 70 completed investigations in which detainee abuse by U.S. military personnel had been confirmed. Of this number, the report found that about one-third occurred not in detention facilities but at the "point of capture" when, the report states, "passions often run high."

The Church report states there is no single, dominant cause of the detainee mistreatment, sources said, yet cites "breakdown of good order and discipline in some units" as a significant contributing factor.

Some Pentagon officials, congressional staffers and rights activists who learned of the report's findings were critical, saying that the report failed to thoroughly examine the role that civilian policy-makers in Washington may have had after the Sept. 11 attacks in "setting the tone" for later abuses.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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