The Pentagon's widest-ranging examination of prisoner abuse at U.S. detention facilities has concluded that there was no deliberate high-level policy that led to numerous cases of mistreatment, and instead blames inept leadership at low levels and confusion over changing interrogation rules, according to government and defense officials who have read the report.
Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III's inquiry, which included reviews of several earlier military investigations, found there is "no single overarching explanation" for the abuse and that many of them occurred when soldiers came in contact with detainees on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than in U.S. detention facilities. It also found that interrogators, for the most part, followed U.S. and international standards for treating detainees humanely and that "there is no link between approved interrogation techniques and detainee abuse."
While the review largely summarizes previous military reports about Defense Department detention operations, it specifically points out that aggressive efforts to increase the quality of human intelligence after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have led Pentagon officials to approve the use of interrogation techniques that were on the borderline of acceptable treatment. As previously disclosed, the report says military lawyers initially debated the use of 39 sometimes controversial techniques -- such as water boarding, a tactic that mimics drowning -- but pared that list to 35. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld approved 24 techniques.
The report, to be presented on Capitol Hill this morning, says Rumsfeld twice approved questionable techniques for use against "resistant" detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to a defense official who quoted parts of the document's executive summary yesterday. "These interrogations were sufficiently aggressive that they highlighted the difficult question of precisely defining the boundaries of humane treatment of detainees," Church's report says.
The review, ordered by Rumsfeld, is designed to be the broadest look at what might have caused the abuse that became notorious after photographs and videos emerged last year from the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
While the Pentagon is still waiting for specific reports examining pieces of its detention operations, Church's review was intended to be the umbrella military investigation, coming on the heels of incremental investigations that looked at the roles of military police, military intelligence, Special Operations and general officers.
None of the internal military reviews has discovered a policy of abuse, nor have any found culpability by top military officers or civilian defense officials. An independent review delivered last year by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger found that high-level authorities failed in their duty to craft clear guidelines for prisoner treatment, but said they were not directly responsible for the abuse.
Human rights organizations have criticized the investigations as falling short of assessing the appropriate criminal responsibility for abuse that in some cases led to deaths, calling the investigations whitewashes that specifically decline to place blame on commanders. One general officer has been suspended from command as a result of Abu Ghraib.
Church's review, according to officials familiar with it, sheds little new light on what has been a year of high-level investigations, and one defense official characterized it as a "gap-filler."
According to officials who have read the report, the review evaluated 70 criminal cases that had been substantiated as of Sept. 30, 2004, and it concludes that fewer than one-third of the cases involved interrogations or military intelligence personnel. The abuse ranged far from Abu Ghraib, and Church did not include hundreds of other cases military officials are investigating.
Church, who is the Navy's inspector general, is extremely complimentary of the U.S. operation in Cuba, calling it a model for detention operations, combining strict command oversight, adequate resources, and its isolation from a combat. He reports that of more than 24,000 interrogation sessions, there were just three substantiated cases of abuse, all involving assault.
He also praised the controversial practice of merging military intelligence and military police into the interrogation process in Cuba, something that soldiers at Abu Ghraib said migrated to Iraq; the practice called for MPs to set conditions for interrogations. Church reports that in a controlled environment, with proper safeguards, such a policy "greatly enhances" intelligence gathering. But as practiced in Iraq, "current doctrine is vague and accordingly requires revision."
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Church found that interrogators tended to improvise even if they knew the rules, but still found that their tactics rarely led to abuse. His report indicates that interrogators "clearly understood" that use of military dogs, for example, was prohibited.
"With limited exceptions, most of which were physical assaults, interrogators did not employ such techniques in general, nor did they direct MPs to do so," according to the executive summary.
Church found that insurgent tactics in Iraq might have caused soldiers to "erode their own standards of conduct" as they reacted passionately to the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings. He also reported that commanders missed the early warning signs, especially at Abu Ghraib, and failed to tell higher commanders quickly.
"Stronger leadership and greater oversight would have lessened the likelihood of abuse," according to one official who quoted the report.
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.