Remedies for Prisoner Abuse

Editorial

THE ONLY WAY to staunch the continuing damage of the prisoner abuse scandal is for the Bush administration to fully document and publicly report on the dozens of cases of homicide and physical abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, prosecute all those directly responsible, and hold accountable the senior military and civilian officers whose decisions and policies led to the lawlessness. President Bush should meanwhile rewrite prisoner interrogation policies so that they conform to U.S. and international law and should publish the revised procedures so that Americans, and the world, can be assured of their propriety.

For now, there is little reason to hope for such essential corrective actions. On the contrary: There is disturbing evidence that senior U.S. military commanders ignored or covered up serious crimes against prisoners, including homicides, until the disclosure of shocking photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison forced them to act, and that even now the Pentagon's intent is to restrict charges to a small number of mostly low-ranking soldiers and resist all scrutiny of senior commanders and policies. Mr. Bush, for his part, continues to damage his credibility and America's global prestige by insisting that the trouble concerns only a handful of soldiers at one prison in Iraq -- though more than 100 cases of misconduct in Iraq and Afghanistan have now been reported -- and to ignore the need to correct his policies.

The Pentagon boasts that a half-dozen investigations related to the prisoner abuses are underway, in addition to criminal procedures. But these studies are narrow, undermined by conflicts of interest, and leave large areas uncovered -- particularly the possible culpability of senior officers. One officer, Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, the deputy chief of Army intelligence, has been charged with investigating the interrogators in his own chain of command. He is likely to recommend action against a couple of intelligence officers, but he is not capable of seriously reviewing the decisions and policies he or his superiors made. Only one review includes figures outside the military chain of command, but this advisory panel, including two former secretaries of defense, has a mandate only to advise Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about gaps in existing inquiries and possible changes in policy, and it has only two months to report.

The advisory panel could play an important role if it pointed out to Mr. Rumsfeld what is clear to most outside experts: Credible investigations of both the criminal cases and the chain of command will require high-level and independent reviews. Regarding the abuse cases, this could take the form of a military court of inquiry headed by a senior officer outside Army intelligence or Central Command, which oversees Iraq. Such a panel could conduct a fresh review of the cases and determine, for example, whether it was correct to close dozens of them without any charges being brought. It could also find out why a number of prisoner death cases remained dormant -- with no death reports filed and in several cases no autopsies conducted -- until after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos.

A separate independent investigation is needed to probe how the Bush administration altered standard Army interrogation policies after 2001 and whether the new policies helped to create the climate of lawlessness that clearly prevailed in a number of detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The connection between CIA interrogations and other secret operations and the abuse of foreign detainees also should be established. Outside expert judgment is needed about whether the secret interrogation techniques now approved for use -- reportedly including hooding, placing prisoners in stress positions, sleep deprivation and intimidation by dogs -- are legal under the Geneva Conventions or related U.S. laws.

Since the administration is unwilling to undertake such a review, Congress must act. Under the leadership of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the Senate Armed Services Committee has made a start at this, and Mr. Warner has promised more public hearings. But a means is needed to draw conclusions, hold officials accountable and take corrective action -- including the rewriting and disclosure of interrogation policies. Even as the committee's probe continues, Mr. Warner and other congressional leaders should consider how those tasks can be accomplished.