- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

First the sort of good news on U.S. treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay based on the findings of a top-level independent investigating panel chaired by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger:

Of 50,000 prisoners at one time or another, there have been 300 allegations of abuse, 155 of them investigated so far and 66 documented. Of those 66, one-third occurred at the point of capture “frequently under uncertain, dangerous and violent circumstances.”

Thus the abuse cannot be said to be widespread.

And, the panel found, “There is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities.”

Thus, the abuse cannot be said to be systematic or systemic.

However, now comes the bad part, the part that led to the disgusting abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

The panel blamed a tolerance for brutal, coercive treatment of prisoners, fostered by the Bush administration’s casual dismissal of the Geneva Conventions and its willingness, as documented in internal memos, to at least entertain using torture. This attitude, said the panel, “migrated” from Guantanamo and Afghanistan to Iraq.

Then there was the inadequate, almost nonexistent, planning for postwar Iraq, particularly having the numbers to deal with a major insurgency and the necessity for dealing with large numbers of captured combatants.

In a separate investigation, three Army generals noted Abu Ghraib was inadequately staffed by inexperienced, undertrained reservists swamped by an influx of prisoners from nightly roundups. From a handful of prisoners, Abu Ghraib grew to more than 7,000 in seven months, guarded by 90 personnel from an Military Police brigade. The prison was under regular mortar attack, adding to the strain.

The generals documented, in sickening detail, 44 cases of abuse, including a fatal beating and an alleged rape. The worst of the abuses the generals blamed on “a small group of morally corrupt and unsupervised soldiers and civilians.”

The Army report faulted the senior commanders for lack of oversight, ignoring early warnings of problem and failing to lay down clear, consistent guidelines for treatment of prisoners.

So far only seven low-ranking soldiers have been charged in the case, but the prison’s two top military intelligence officers, a colonel and a lieutenant colonel, face disciplinary charges, as do several dozen other military and civilian personnel.

To the Pentagon’s credit, the treatment of prisoners is being thoroughly investigated. A third report is due soon. In time, the guilty will be punished, but at some level, there still needs to be an assignment — and an assumption — of responsibility.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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