Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A Trail of 'Major Failures' Leads to Defense Secretary's Office

NY Times
August 25, 2004
A Trail of 'Major Failures' Leads to Defense Secretary's Office

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 - For Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign over the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib would be a mistake, the four-member panel headed by James M. Schlesinger asserted Tuesday. But in tracing responsibility for what went wrong at Abu Ghraib, it drew a line that extended to the defense secretary's office.

The panel cited what it called major failures on the part of Mr. Rumsfeld and his aides in not anticipating and responding swiftly to the post-invasion insurgency in Iraq. On the eve of the Republican convention, that verdict could not have been welcome at the White House, where postwar problems in Iraq represent perhaps President Bush's greatest political liability.

The report rarely mentions Mr. Rumsfeld by name, referring most often instead to the "office of the secretary of defense.'' But as a sharp criticism of postwar planning for Iraq, it represents the most explicit official indictment to date of an operation that was very much the province of Mr. Rumsfeld and his top deputies.

"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 2003,'' Mr. Schlesinger, a former defense secretary himself, said in presenting the panel's findings at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

Beginning in late 2002, the panel said, Mr. Rumsfeld and his staff set the stage for an environment in which abuses later became widespread. They did this first by sowing confusion about what kinds of interrogation techniques would be permitted, then by failing to plan for the intensity of the post-invasion insurgency, and finally by delaying for months in dispatching reinforcements to help the American guards at Abu Ghraib contend with the swelling number of prisoners.

The panel sidestepped the broader, even more contentious, question of whether Mr. Rumsfeld had sent enough troops to Iraq. It focused instead on what it described as short staffing among the military police, who were outnumbered by prisoners by a ratio of 75 to 1 at Abu Ghraib, and at the headquarters of Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, whose 495-member staff numbered only about one-third of the authorized total.

In the four months since the abuses at Abu Ghraib first came to light, some of Mr. Rumsfeld's critics have demanded his resignation, as a gesture of the accountability that the defense secretary himself has promised. But while the panel chronicled failures all the way up the civilian as well as the military command, all four members said that Mr. Rumsfeld's errors were less severe than those made by uniformed officers, and that he should not be forced from office for what they described as primarily failures of omission.

"If the head of a department had to resign every time someone below him did something wrong, it'd be a very empty cabinet table,'' said Harold Brown, defense secretary under President Jimmy Carter and a panel member. Indeed, members of the panel went out of their way to praise Mr. Rumsfeld for having tried to avert abuses by directing his staff beginning in late 2002 to draw up rules for interrogation at the American detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But they said confusion about those rules, which were rewritten several times as part of a fierce Pentagon debate, ultimately added to problems in Afghanistan and Iraq as the procedures were put into force there, without adequate supervision, by military intelligence units that were moved from Cuba to the Middle East.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who was briefed on the findings by video conference on Tuesday morning, responded later in the day only with a brief statement, saying that the panel had provided "important information and recommendations.''

"We have said from the beginning that we would see that these incidents were fully investigated, make findings, make the appropriate corrections, and make them public,'' Mr. Rumsfeld said.

As described by Tillie K. Fowler, another member of the group and a former Republican congresswoman from Florida, the panel's mission was to find out "how this happened and who let it happen,'' a reference to the abuses that came to public attention in April with the publication of what have now become infamous photographs.

The abuses depicted in those photographs themselves were primarily the work of a small group of wayward soldiers, including the seven members of a military police unit who have already been charged with the crime, the panel members said Tuesday. But the panel took issue with the idea, voiced publicly by senior officials including Mr. Bush, that the full array of misconduct at the prison was limited to no more than "a few'' soldiers.

"We found a string of failures that go well beyond an isolated cellblock in Iraq,'' Ms. Fowler said at the Pentagon.

"We found fundamental failures throughout all levels of command, from the soldiers on the ground to the Central Command and to the Pentagon," she said. "These failures of leadership helped to set the conditions which allowed for the abusive practice to take place.''

In addressing the role played by Mr. Rumsfeld in particular, the panel's report emphasized the defense secretary's decisions beginning on Dec. 2, 2002, to authorize for use at Guantánamo Bay 16 additional interrogation procedures more aggressive than the 17 methods long approved as part of standard military practice. The next month, in response to criticisms from the Navy, Mr. Rumsfeld rescinded a majority of the approved measures, and directed that the remaining aggressive techniques could be used only with his approval.

But it was not until April 16, 2003, the report said, that a final list of approved techniques for use at Guantánamo was issued. It said that those changes "were an element contributing to uncertainties in the field as to which techniques were authorized,'' and that ultimately "the augmented techniques for Guantánamo migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded.''

"Had the secretary of defense had a wider range of legal opinions and a more robust debate regarding detainee policies and operations, his policy of April 16, 2003, might well have been developed and issued in early December 2002,'' the report said. "This would have avoided the policy changes which characterized the Dec. 2, 2002, to April 16, 2003, period.''

In terms of postwar planning, members of the panel faulted the Pentagon for assuming that the problems encountered in Iraq after a full-scale American invasion in 2003 would be limited to the refugee issues that followed the limited incursion of the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

By last summer, as it became clear "that there was a major insurgency growing in Iraq,'' the report said, senior leaders within the uniformed military and the Pentagon "should have moved to meet the need for additional military police forces'' to help guard prisoners at Abu Ghraib in particular, whose population had begun to overwhelm the members of the 800th Military Police Brigade, who ultimately became the primary agents in the acts of abuse.

Here in particular, the panel made clear its view that by October or November at least, the void should have been filled by Mr. Rumsfeld and his aides.

Using an acronym that refers to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the report said, "It is the judgment of this panel that in the future, considering the sensitivity of this kind of mission, the OSD should assure itself that serious limitations in detention/interrogation missions do not occur.''