Beyond Abu Ghraib


Los Angeles Times

May 15, 2005

The release a year ago of photographs of American soldiers performing twisted acts like holding Iraqi prisoners at the end of a leash stamped the name Abu Ghraib with a notoriety that will last for decades. Some soldiers are being held accountable, either with jail time or loss of rank, but the scandal also has shone light on the issue of mistreatment of detainees beyond Iraq, a matter that requires a far-reaching investigation independent of U.S. intelligence agencies or the military.

Last week, Army officials announced that the officer in charge of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib at the time of the abuse and sexual humiliation of inmates, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, had been reprimanded and fined for not ensuring that interrogators were adequately trained and supervised. That will end his Army career. Janis Karpinski, the commander of military police at the prison, earlier was demoted from brigadier general to colonel for not properly supervising the guards. Her career also is over. But the punishment of two high-ranking officers does not erase concerns that the Army is seeking scapegoats among lower-ranking soldiers and sparing the brass.

The Abu Ghraib photos offer a continuing source of fuel for Muslim hatred of the United States, but there are others. Demonstrations in Afghanistan last week were sparked by a Newsweek report that Americans had desecrated the Koran during interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. The State Department this month reported that 11 soldiers at the U.S. naval base in Cuba were punished for abusing detainees, but only one was court-martialed. He was acquitted.

The State Department's report was given to the U.N. Committee Against Torture and states that the U.S. prohibits the practice. But the report did not address "ghost detainees," who are abducted covertly and transferred to other countries without being given access to the Red Cross. The U.S. says it does not hand over prisoners to countries that torture, but foreign detainees are periodically released and testify to the contrary.

The U.S. military has a generally good record in holding its people accountable for their misdeeds. But the CIA also is involved in prisoner interrogation, and the secrecy surrounding the agency raises questions about mistreatment. The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), said in March that the CIA was not torturing detainees; he said there was no reason for the committee to investigate allegations that the agency abused prisoners or transferred them to countries engaging in torture. He's wrong.

A clearer view came from the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner (R-Va.), who said last month that once the Pentagon ended all its assessments of mistreatment of detainees, he would hold a hearing to review the findings. He also says he wants to hear senior civilian and military officials discuss the abuses. But even that may not be enough. The civil liberties group Human Rights First reports that 108 people have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 30 of them suspected or confirmed to be murder victims.

The 9/11 attacks demanded a better response to terrorism and a reexamination of procedures to hold guerrillas not entitled to prisoner-of-war status. But that discussion needs to be public and led by Congress. It's not enough for Pentagon civilian leaders to cook up excuses for holding suspects incommunicado and to spell out rules on detainee treatment more clearly only when violations are reported in the media. Congressional committees should investigate whether the military is living up to its tradition of accountability and whether intelligence agencies are heeding the law. The matter goes far beyond how the U.S. is viewed abroad; it goes to the heart of how Americans view themselves and the core values under which this nation was founded.