Higher-Ranking Officer Is Sought to Lead the Abu Ghraib Inquiry

By ERIC SCHMITT

New York Times

Published: June 10, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 9 - The commander of American forces in the Middle East asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this week to replace the general investigating suspected abuses by military intelligence soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison with a more senior officer, a step that would allow the inquiry to reach into the military's highest ranks in Iraq, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The request by the commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, comes amid increasing criticism from lawmakers and some military officers that the half dozen investigations into detainee abuse at the prison may end up scapegoating a handful of enlisted soldiers and leaving many senior officers unaccountable.

General Abizaid's request, which defense officials said Mr. Rumsfeld would most likely approve, was set in motion in the last week when the current investigating officer, Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, told his superiors that he could not complete his inquiry without interviewing more senior-ranking officers, including Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq.

But Army regulations prevent General Fay, a two-star general, from interviewing higher-ranking officers. So General Sanchez took the unusual step of asking to be removed as the reviewing authority for General Fay's report, and requesting that higher-ranking officers be appointed to conduct and review the investigation.

"General Sanchez did this to ensure that there was a complete, thorough and transparent investigation that leaves no doubt as to the veracity of its findings," said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.

Mr. Rumsfeld was expected to act on General Abizaid's request soon, Mr. Whitman said. It was unclear Wednesday night who would replace General Fay, who would almost certainly remain an important part of the inquiry that he has headed since his appointment on April 15. One possible candidate is Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the vice chief of staff of the Army, who is expected to replace General Sanchez in Iraq soon after the transfer of authority on June 30 to the new interim Iraqi government.

It was unclear whether how this change might delay the delivery of the final report, which had been expected in early July. Some lawmakers have said they would delay their calls for an independent congressional investigation or one modeled after the inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, until General Fay's report was completed.

The sudden turn of events in the investigation came as new details emerged about why General Fay in the last week or so requested and received a 30-day extension to complete his report.

Within the last several days, an important figure in the inquiry who had previously refused to cooperate with Army investigators suddenly reversed his position and agreed to work much more closely with investigators, a senior Senate aide and a senior Pentagon official said.

That important development prompted General Fay to send some of his 29-person team back into the field to conduct more interviews, the officials said. "A key witness, a key person who'd pled the military equivalent of the Fifth has changed his attitude, and Fay is reopening the investigation," the Senate official said.

The officials said they did not know the identity of the witness.

Mr. Rumsfeld's anticipated approval of General Abizaid's request would open the way for a new, senior Army investigator to question General Sanchez and other senior generals as part of a broad inquiry into questionable intelligence-gathering practices and procedures at the prison that may have contributed to the prisoner abuses.

Senior Army officials insisted Wednesday night that General Sanchez was not a target of the investigation, and that he decided to recuse himself to dispel any perceptions of a conflict of interest. General Sanchez ordered the investigation that General Fay was eventually appointed to conduct.

Among the biggest questions for General Sanchez will no doubt be his order last Nov. 19 that, according to another senior Army investigator, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, put the military police at the prison effectively under the control of the military intelligence soldiers.