Closer to the Truth

Editorial

August 28, 2004

TWO NEW OFFICIAL reports on the treatment of foreign prisoners have dragged the Bush administration and Pentagon brass a couple of steps closer to facing the truth about how and why U.S. soldiers and interrogators committed scores of acts of torture and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. An Army investigation released yesterday showed that culpability for the criminal mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison lay not just with a handful of reserve soldiers but with more than two dozen military intelligence officers and civilian contractors. On Tuesday a panel appointed by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld demolished the fiction, clung to until now by President Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's whitewashers, that prisoner abuse in Iraq was an aberration for which no senior officials were responsible. "The abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline," said the report of the pan el chaired by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger. "There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels."

As the Schlesinger report persuasively details, the malfeasance of Mr. Rumsfeld and senior commanders in Iraq includes their failure to anticipate chaotic postwar conditions and slowness to respond to the insurgency that began to emerge soon after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. These mistakes -- in addition to contributing to the deep troubles U.S. forces now face -- led to a situation in which thousands of Iraqi detainees, most innocent of any offense, were guarded by far too few U.S. soldiers in squalid and dangerous conditions.

These errors point to a fundamental lack of competence on the part of Mr. Rumsfeld and senior commanders in conducting the war. But even more important, in our view, is the panel's support for the truth most fiercely resisted by the administration and its allies: that the crimes at Abu Ghraib were, in part, the result of the 2002 decision by the president and his top aides to set aside the Geneva Conventions as well as standard U.S. doctrines for the treatment of prisoners. Mr. Bush's political appointees in the Justice and Defense departments redefined the meaning of torture and pressed for interrogation techniques regarded by the Pentagon's own lawyers as excessive. Those techniques, the report says, "migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq where they were neither limited nor safeguarded." In Iraq, commanding Lt. Gen Ricardo S. Sanchez, "using reasoning from the President's memorandum" of 2002, approved some practices that had been outlawed at the Guantanamo Bay prison -- even though detainees in Iraq, unlike those at Guantanamo, were covered by the Geneva Conventions.

The new reports leave many questions still unanswered, questions that would best be addressed by a broader and more independent investigation. The role played by the CIA has been largely unexamined, even though its operatives are complicit in several homicides and may have had much to do with the "migration" of abusive practices. The illegal concealment of some "ghost" detainees from the International Red Cross in Iraq, and Mr. Rumsfeld's admitted role in it, has yet to be clarified or adequately investigated. Though it recommended reforms, the Schlesinger panel shrank from suggesting that senior officials be held accountable for their conduct; its members, who include three longstanding members of the defense establishment and a former Republican congresswoman, have declared that they do not wish to see Mr. Rumsfeld resign. Similarly, the latest Army investigation, like others before it, excused all officers above the rank of colonel -- to its own discredit. It should be unacceptable that low-ranking rese rvists are criminally prosecuted for the abuses at Abu Ghraib while the senior officials who created the conditions for that abuse, and did nothing to stop it, escape all sanction. As the truth about this damaging affair slowly emerges, it must be matched with consequences for all those responsible.