Lack of Oversight Led to Abuse of Detainees, Investigator Says

A Pentagon review finds higher-ups were not directly responsible for the mistreatment.

By Mark Mazzetti

Los Angeles Times

March 9, 2005

WASHINGTON — The latest Pentagon review of military detainee mistreatment criticizes U.S. officials for failing to establish clear interrogation guidelines but concludes that Pentagon officials and senior commanders were not directly responsible for the widespread abuses, said Defense Department and congressional sources who have read the report.

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 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 report concludes, according to one source who quoted from it.

One "missed opportunity" cited in Church's report 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 there.

Another occurred in 2002, when new interrogation techniques for Guantanamo Bay 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 Although the Pentagon later rescinded many of the physically stressful techniques, a Pentagon inquiry last year found that harsh interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay "migrated" to prisons in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.

Church's 368-page report, portions of which will be released Thursday, 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 remaining. Isolated criminal cases are being pursued by the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Justice Department.

Unlike the investigation into military police conducted in the spring by Army Maj. Gen Antonio M. Taguba and a subsequent inquiry 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," said a congressional aide who has read the Church document. "The passive voice is used a lot."

A report in the 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 senior civilian leaders for failing to provide consistent, specific policies on the treatment of detainees.

Schlesinger's report also chastised Army 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 Abu Ghraib facility outside Baghdad.

Pentagon officials said 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 that number, the report found that about one-third of the abuse cases occurred not in detention facilities but at the "point of capture," when, the report states, "passions often run high."

The report says there is no dominant cause of the detainee mistreatment, sources said, yet the report cites "breakdown of good order and discipline in some units" as a significant contributing factor. Last year, Schlesinger described the conduct of military police soldiers at Abu Ghraib as " 'Animal House' on the night shift."

Sources said the Church review found that the CIA kept about 30 "ghost detainees" off the books at various military prisons in Iraq, confirming the conclusions of previous investigations.

And, sources said, the report criticizes the fact that soldiers in Iraq were given no formal guidance on dealing with CIA operatives who were shuttling those off-the-books detainees from prison to prison.

Some Pentagon officials, congressional staffers and rights activists who learned of the report's contents were critical of the findings, saying the report failed to thoroughly examine the role civilian policymakers in Washington may have had after the Sept. 11 attacks in "setting the tone" for abuses that eventually occurred thousands of miles away.

"The report is underwhelming, to say the least," said one senior Defense official who criticized the various investigations for punishing mainly low-level soldiers.

Others criticized the fact that the Church investigation apparently based its conclusions on only 70 cases.

Rights groups have been calling for an outside investigation of abuses, but the Bush administration has refused.

"That the Defense Department is suggesting that number constitutes the universe of abuse cases demonstrates the inadequacy of the investigations," said Lucas Guttentag, a senior lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union who last week filed a lawsuit against Rumsfeld and three senior Army commanders, charging that the military authorized illegal interrogation techniques.