ADAY OF congressional hearings yesterday confirmed two glaring gaps in the Bush administration's response to hundreds of cases of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first is one of investigation: Major allegations of wrongdoing, including some touching on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials, have yet to be explored by any arms-length probe. The second concerns accountability. Although several official panels have documented failings by senior military officers and their superiors in Washington, those responsible face no sanction of any kind, even as low-ranking personnel are criminally prosecuted. To use the phrase of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), this "is beginning to look like a bad movie."
Mr. Rumsfeld has frequently boasted of the number of Pentagon investigations into the abuse scandal and has maintained that no others are necessary. Yet the senior officer in charge of one of those probes, Gen. Paul J. Kern, told the Senate Armed Services Committee of two major areas that remain unexplored. One is the Army's accommodation of dozens of "ghost prisoners" held by the CIA and deliberately hidden from the International Red Cross in violation of the Geneva Conventions and Army regulations. Mr. Rumsfeld has acknowledged that at least one of those prisoners was held by his personal order -- an order that two former secretaries of defense, James R. Schlesinger and Harold Brown, testified was "not consistent" with international law. Gen. Kern reported that the CIA had flatly refused to provide his team with information about the ghost prisoners or their handling -- prompting Mr. McCain's acerbic comment.
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The only investigation of those cases underway -- other than the internal review the CIA claims to be conducting behind its stone wall -- is assigned to the Army's inspector general, Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek. Yet Gen. Mikolashek has already delivered one report purporting to find no evidence of such detainees, and according to reporting by Elise Ackerman of the Knight Ridder news service, Gen. Mikolashek himself commanded ground forces in Afghanistan at a time when ghost detainees were being held.
Gen. Kern also acknowledged that the Pentagon has never answered the critical question of how harsh interrogation techniques promoted by Mr. Rumsfeld and other political appointees at the Pentagon and the Justice Department "found their way into documentation that we found at Abu Ghraib," the notorious prison outside Baghdad. As Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (R-S.C.) pointed out, those techniques were "way out of bounds"; "inappropriately" classified memos, he said, show that professional military lawyers opposed them from the beginning because "they violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they violated international law and they would get our people in trouble."
Nevertheless, as Gen. Kern put it, tactics that were "being debated back here in the United States found [their] way into the hard drives of the computers that we found in the prison." No investigation has clarified that "migration," or why Mr. Rumsfeld and other senior officials allowed it to occur even after the methods they proposed were determined to be improper.
Nor has the malfeasance by senior officials so far documented been attached to any formal consequences. Investigators confirmed that senior officers in the headquarters of Iraq commander in chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, including two generals, knew of the illegal abuses at Abu Ghraib but failed to report them to more senior commanders. Gen. Sanchez himself twice signed off on interrogation policies that, the investigators found, contained illegal methods and opened the way to abuses. Yet none of these senior officers face the courts-martial of more junior personnel, or any other sanction. Rather, the Bush administration's investigators are striving to protect them: Gen. Kern insisted that Gen. Sanchez was "a hero."
To his credit, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, refused to accept this dodge. Instead, he asked that Gen. Kern and his associates reexamine the cases of Gen. Sanchez and other senior officers, and he pledged to investigate the ghost prisoner affair. Yet it seems unlikely that a single congressional committee, buffeted by the pressures of an election year, will succeed in filling the holes it has uncovered.
The best solution is that recommended this week by eight retired generals and admirals, including a former U.S. commander in the Middle East: an independent commission like the one that which studied the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The former officers said the panel was needed "to investigate and report on the truth about all of these allegations, and to chart a course for how practices that violate the law should be addressed." As yesterday's hearings showed, the Bush administration has failed at both those tasks.