Thursday, August 26, 2004

Holding the Pentagon Accountable For Abu Ghraib

NY Times
August 26, 2004
Holding the Pentagon Accountable For Abu Ghraib

For anyone with the time to wade through 400-plus pages and the resources to decode them, the two reports issued this week on the Abu Ghraib prison are an indictment of the way the Bush administration set the stage for Iraqi prisoners to be brutalized by American prison guards, military intelligence officers and private contractors.

The Army's internal investigation, released yesterday, showed that the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib went far beyond the actions of a few sadistic military police officers - the administration's chosen culprits. It said that 27 military intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors committed criminal offenses, and that military officials hid prisoners from the Red Cross. Another report, from a civilian panel picked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, offers the dedicated reader a dotted line from President Bush's decision to declare Iraq a front in the war against terror, to government lawyers finding ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions, to Mr. Rumsfeld's bungled planning of the occupation and understaffing of the ground forces in Iraq, to the hideous events at Abu Ghraib prison.

That was a service to the public, but the civilian panel did an enormous disservice by not connecting those dots and walking away from any real exercise in accountability. Instead, Pentagon officials who are never named get muted criticism for issuing confusing memos and not monitoring things closely enough. This is all cast as "leadership failure" - the 21st-century version of the Nixonian "mistakes were made" evasion - that does not require even the mildest reprimand for Mr. Rumsfeld, who should have resigned over this disaster months ago. Direct condemnation is reserved for the men and women in the field, from the military police officers sent to guard prisoners without training to the three-star general in Iraq.

Still, the dots are there, making it clear that the road to Abu Ghraib began well before the invasion of Iraq, when the administration created the category of "unlawful combatants" for suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban who were captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Interrogators wanted to force these prisoners to talk in ways that are barred by American law and the Geneva Conventions, and on Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department lawyers produced the infamous treatise on how to construe torture as being legal.

In December 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld authorized things like hooding prisoners, using dogs to terrify them, forcing them into "stress positions" for long periods, stripping them, shaving them and isolating them. All this was prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, but President Bush had already declared on Feb. 7, 2002, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda.

In January, the general counsel of the Navy objected, and Mr. Rumsfeld rescinded some of the extreme techniques. Then another legal review further narrowed the list, and Mr. Rumsfeld issued yet another memo on April 16, 2003. The Schlesinger panel said the memos confused field commanders, who thought that harsh interrogations were allowed, and that things could have been made clearer if Mr. Rumsfeld had allowed a real legal debate in the first place. Yet the panel places no fault on Mr. Rumsfeld for the cascade of disastrous events that followed.

According to the report, American forces began mistreating prisoners at the outset of the war in Afghanistan. Interrogators and members of military intelligence were sent from Afghanistan to Iraq, and the harsh interrogations "migrated" with them, the report said. But one of the panel's oddest failures is how it deals with this issue. It notes that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who had been running the prison in Guantánamo Bay, went to Iraq in August 2003, bringing the harsh interrogation rules with him. The report said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander in Iraq, used his advice to approve a dozen "aggressive interrogation techniques," and that General Sanchez was "using reasoning" from the president's own memo. But in the strange logic of this report, that was not the fault of those who made the policies. The report assigns no responsibility to General Miller, nor does it say that he was sent to Iraq by Mr. Rumsfeld's staff.

All these decisions were happening in a chaotic context. The Schlesinger reports said the military failed to anticipate the insurgency in Iraq or react to it properly and was unprepared for the number of prisoners it had. Insufficient numbers of military police units were sent to Iraq in a disorganized fashion, many of them untrained reservists.

The panel was right in criticizing General Sanchez for not appreciating the scope of the disaster, but it made only the most glancing reference to the bigger problem: the Iraqi occupation force was too small. And that was a policy approved by Mr. Bush and designed by Mr. Rumsfeld, who wanted a lightning invasion by the sparest force possible, based on the ludicrous notion that Iraqis would not resist.

Still, the civilian panel said the politicians had only indirect responsibility for this mess, and Mr. Schlesinger made the absurd argument that firing Mr. Rumsfeld would aid "the enemy." That is reminiscent of the comment Mr. Bush made last spring when he visited the Pentagon to view images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners and then announced that Mr. Rumsfeld was doing a "superb job." It may not be all that surprising from a commission appointed by the secretary of defense and run by two former secretaries of defense (Mr. Schlesinger and Harold Brown). But it seems less a rational assessment than an attempt to cut off any further criticism of the men at the top.