- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

The recently released Schlesinger report, which reviewed prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, highlighted a telling detail that helps the public understand just how certain U.S. military police and intelligence officers came to perform acts of “brutality and purposeless sadism” upon Iraqi POWs: By October 2003, there were more than 7,000 detainees incarcerated at Abu Ghraib, but only 90 personnel from the 800th Military Police Brigade to guard them. That is almost an 80-to-1 ratio, and underscores the very real moral culpability with those directly involved in the abuse. At the same time, the report does not hedge in finding a not insignificant amount of managerial culpability in the Pentagon for failing to detect sooner these individual cases of moral transgressions.

As the report makes clear, the insurgency (unexpected by the administration) that erupted after the fall of Baghdad in the summer of 2003 put tremendous strain on the in-country U.S. forces. Not only were our soldiers in the field forced to combat guerrilla-style warfare, but military police brigades housed in hastily occupied prisons were suddenly flooded with tens of thousands of prisoners. This unexpected scenario explains, in part, what happened at Abu Ghraib. Conditions at the prison itself were “seriously overcrowded, under-resourced, and under continual attack.” U.S. soldiers at the prison were attacked by mortars 25 times in July 2003 alone. According to the report, “there was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adopt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations.” An indirect link of culpability, then, necessarily leads to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Washington civilian and military officials for not adapting to this crisis quickly enough.

The report also states, however, “No approved procedures called for or allowed the kinds of abuse that in fact occurred. There is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities.” The direct fault, the report says, is with the officers in charge of Abu Ghraib — especially Lt. Col. Thomas M. Pappas — and, by degrees, commanders in Iraq, like Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez for failing to respond to the an increasingly chaotic prisoner situation. But even here the public should be aware that what allowed military police and intelligence officials to abuse Iraqi prisoners was the confusion of top commanders in understanding exactly what were approved interrogation techniques. Those that were approved for the carefully controlled conditions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where al Qaeda and Taliban members were being held, “became far more problematic when they migrated and were not adequately safeguarded” in Iraq.

The picture the report paints for the public, then, is one of a systems failure: A situation involving this many examples of individual and moral failings 1) reveals a breakdown of communication in the chain of command; and 2) should have been detected and eradicated sooner. We hasten to add, however, that it was in fact the military system itself that, in the end, caught the failures and acted accordingly by executing an internal investigation in January that only received attention once the abuse pictures were released to the press in April. It was in fact Mr. Rumsfeld who, when confronted with the problem, took the appropriate actions to solve it.

Furthermore, managing the Pentagon during peace time is a difficult enough task in itself. On Sept. 10, 2001, we were a nation at peace. But beginning on Oct. 7, 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom began, and everyday since then, the Pentagon has been engaged in its primary responsibility: to wage war. In an ideal world, every part of the military complex would be perfectly managed. Nevertheless, as head of this complex, fighting is Mr. Rumsfeld’s first priority and toward this end he has performed magnificently even by our high historical standards. James Schlesinger acknowledged as much when he told the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “The behavior of our troops is so much better than it was in World War II.”

But despite the report’s conclusions, and in defiance of Mr. Schlesinger’s ringing endorsement of Mr. Rumsfeld at a committee hearing on Tuesday, John Kerry once again called for Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation. But then he would. The Bush administration should ignore Mr. Kerry’s campaign rhetoric and get to the task of analyzing the report and implementing the panel’s recommendations.

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