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Editorial

More Excuses

Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B06

THE PENTAGON'S investigations of its own abuses of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have taken on a predictable pattern. Officials compile voluminous reports -- there have now been 10 -- detailing shocking mistreatment, widespread violations of laws and the Geneva Conventions, and failures by senior military commanders and civilian officials up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. They then conclude there was "no policy of abuse" and duck the question of whether anyone above the low-ranking personnel now being prosecuted should be held accountable.

The report delivered to Congress last week by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III, which was intended to fill the gaps of previous reviews, provides a blatant example of this whitewashing. Though it comprises 360 pages, the Pentagon released only a 21-page executive summary. This euphemistically describes "missed opportunities" in the management of interrogation of detainees but insists -- directly contradicting at least three previous Pentagon reports -- that these did not contribute to the 70 cases of proven abuse, including six deaths, that it covers.

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When asked who should be held responsible for this terrible record, Adm. Church first told a congressional hearing that it was "not in my charter" to determine that. Later, he revealingly told journalists, "I don't think you can hold anyone accountable for a situation that maybe if you had done something different, maybe something would have occurred differently." By that standard, no commander in the U.S. military would ever suffer any consequence for malfeasance, however damaging to the national interest. Judging from the record of investigating prisoner abuse, that is exactly the Pentagon's intent.

Military spokesmen protest that the process isn't finished. The Army inspector general is said to be pursuing investigations of senior officers. The Army also has been delivering encouraging reports, though without much detail, about a revamping of interrogation policies and of supervision and training for personnel who handle detainees. So far, however, the only general officer known to have been sanctioned is a reserve brigadier general who played no role in conducting prisoner interrogations or writing policies for them and who plausibly describes herself as a scapegoat.

We know, from the sketchy and partial investigations that have been done, that decisions by Mr. Rumsfeld and the Justice Department to permit coercive interrogation techniques previously considered unacceptable for U.S. personnel influenced practices at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and later spread to Afghan- istan and Iraq. Methods such as hooding, enforced nudity, sensory deprivation and the use of dogs to terrorize -- all originally approved by the defense secretary -- were widely employed, even though they violate the Geneva Conventions. But no genuinely independent investigator has been empowered to connect these decisions and events and conclude where accountability truly should lie.

Congress could put a stop to this bureaucratic cover-up, but despite loud public protestations, its Republican leadership appears not to have the stomach to do so. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, once vowed to pursue the prisoner abuse investigation wherever it led, but Thursday's hearing was the first he had scheduled on the matter in more than six months. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has angrily warned against limiting punishment only to low-ranking personnel; he didn't participate in the latest hearing. Meanwhile, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) continues to refuse a request by Democratic senators for an investigation into credible reports of torture, abuse and homicide by the CIA in a clandestine network of overseas prisons, a scandal for which there has been no public accounting, much less accountability. Willingly or not, congressional Republicans are identifying themselves as a party ready to accept systematic American violations of human rights.


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