Human rights groups expressed dismay yesterday over the Army's findings exonerating U.S. generals of prisoner abuse in Iraq, and renewed requests for an independent probe to examine the culpability of senior military and civilian defense officials.
In a report released yesterday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch called on U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the roles of all U.S. officials "who participated in, ordered, or had command responsibility for war crimes or torture." Human Rights Watch also asked Congress to launch an independent and bipartisan probe -- similar to that of the 9/11 commission -- to investigate the roles of senior leaders in abuse, including President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former CIA director George J. Tenet.
The group, along with Amnesty International, yesterday also assailed the Army's findings that top generals in Iraq should bear no official responsibility for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison or for failures that led to widespread problems at detention facilities elsewhere in Iraq. Noting the similarities in alleged abuse at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at facilities in Afghanistan and across Iraq, the groups said the military appears incapable of investigating itself.
"We believe that if the U.S. is going to wipe away the stain of Abu Ghraib, it needs to investigate those at the top who ordered or condoned abuse, and to come clean on what the president has authorized and repudiate once and for all the mistreatment of detainees in the war on terror," said Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch special counsel. "The fact that you have the same kinds of abuses going on in three different theaters suggests that the responsibility is higher up."
Government and military officials said Friday that an Army inspector general's investigation had concluded that four top general officers who worked in Iraq were cleared of wrongdoing, including Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who led U.S. troops on the ground after major combat operations in 2003. In a series of military investigations into abuse, Sanchez and his deputies had been accused of failing to properly plan for and supervise massive U.S. detention and intelligence-gathering operations, but the probes also found that Sanchez's team was working under extremely difficult circumstances.
Instead of blaming top officials, the military has placed either criminal or administrative charges against 125 individuals in connection with 350 abuse cases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only general officer to face official sanction so far is Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, who supervised U.S. detention facilities in Iraq as commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade. Sources have said Karpinski is expected to receive a reprimand.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has vowed to hold more hearings until he is satisfied that the proper people are held accountable. Defense officials have said their 10 major investigations, 20 Senate hearings and 40 Capitol Hill staff briefings have been open and thorough.
"We've done extensive investigations, and we remain committed to comprehensive investigation and review of all aspects of detention operations," said Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, a Pentagon spokesman. "When Mr. Warner or his fellow congressmen ask for more information from the Department of Defense, we've been very forthcoming in open hearings and in closed hearings. I'm sure, should they need any more information, we will assist them in getting it."
Human rights groups singled out Sanchez's exoneration as particularly troubling, given that thousands of pages of Army investigative documents released in recent months appear to show patterns of abusive tactics and tacit approvals of some especially harsh methods. Sanchez also approved using military working dogs in interrogations to strike fear in detainees, a tactic that was captured in digital photographs taken at Abu Ghraib.
"The total exoneration of Sanchez runs counter to what previous investigations have strongly suggested, which is that there was a failure at the command level and not just aberrant behavior by individual guards and interrogators," said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for Amnesty International USA. "This can't be the last word, but it does seem to confirm that only an independent investigation would be capable of setting out who bears responsibility and what their punishment should be."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which after a lawsuit secured tens of thousands of pages of Army documents relating to abuse investigations, denounced the military's findings. The abuse has "tarred America's image in the world community," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.
"As we continue to receive more information, the government cannot ignore the systemic nature of the torture that implicates the military chain of command to the very top," Romero said in a statement.
Anthony Vieira, a California attorney who has been involved in representing Pfc. Lynndie R. England against abuse charges related to the Abu Ghraib photographs -- in which she is pictured holding a detainee on the end of a leash, one of the most notorious icons of the scandal -- said yesterday that he is disappointed by the Army's findings and that he doubts senior leaders will be held responsible for their actions or inaction.
"Anyone who's been in the military knows that the chain of command is responsible for what is going on below them," Vieira said. "All this stuff was going on for a long time, and the contention that they didn't know just doesn't fly."