Some Seek Broad, External Inquiry on Prisoner Abuse
By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page A14
In response to mounting evidence that detainees in U.S. military custody were badly abused in Iraq and elsewhere, the Pentagon has launched an array of investigations, assessments and reviews aimed, officials have insisted, at exposing those responsible for the misdeeds and preventing recurrences.
But a close look at what is being investigated, and who is doing the investigating, reveals gaps in the web of probes as well as limitations on the scope, with none of the inquiries designed to yield a complete picture of what went wrong or address suspicions of a possible top-secret intelligence-gathering operation that may have helped set the stage for the misconduct.
"I can't tell if all the inquiries represent attempts to patch new holes opening in the boat every day, or if they're part of some carefully designed strategy to have lots of activity going on around the center of this thing without probing the center itself," said John Hamre, who served as deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton and now heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
With one inquiry completed and five more underway -- not to mention dozens of criminal investigations into alleged abusive treatment of detainees inside and outside military-run facilities -- Pentagon officials continue to promise that all trails will be pursued wherever they lead and that the guilty will be held accountable.
But some military lawyers, lawmakers and defense experts point to what they see as fundamental shortcomings: Most of the probes involve the Army investigating itself, they say, and each investigation is focused on only one aspect or another of the burgeoning scandal -- the role of military intelligence personnel who served as interrogators, for instance, or the adequacy of training of reservists or the need for revisions in Army training and doctrine.
No investigating authority has been given the specific task of assessing the roles of top authorities either in the U.S. Central Command or at the Pentagon. In past high-profile cases, including the 1991 Tailhook scandal, the 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia of an Air Force barracks and the 2000 attack in Yemen on the USS Cole, inquiries conducted by the affected military branches were criticized by investigators from outside the services for focusing on lower ranks and neglecting to assess supervision up the chain of command.
"I really doubt whether the Defense Department can investigate itself, because there's a possibility the secretary himself authorized certain actions," said Wayne A. Downing, a retired four-star Army general who headed a Pentagon task force that examined the Air Force barracks case. "This cries out for an outside commission to investigate."
The closest the Pentagon has come to initiating an overarching independent review of detainee treatment is Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's appointment May 7 of a four-member panel to help advise him. The panelists include two former defense secretaries (James R. Schlesinger and Harold Brown), a retired Air Force general (Charles A. Horner) and a onetime Republican House member from Florida (Tillie Fowler).
Schlesinger, the panel's chairman, said in a brief interview yesterday that the roles of top commanders, the possible involvement of government intelligence agencies and other key issues will be studied. But the panel has just two months to draft a report, and its charter calls only for identifying gaps in existing inquiries and recommending changes in training, organization and policies related to the handling of detainees.
In Congress, too, the investigative effort has yet to match major probes of the past. Republican leaders have resisted calls from Democratic lawmakers to establish a special panel of inquiry, as was done in the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, or authorize a blue-ribbon commission, like the one now investigating government mistakes related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Instead, congressional action has been kept within regular committee channels, principally the armed services committees. And only the Senate committee, under the leadership of John W. Warner (R-Va.), has shown investigating vigor, convening a series of hearings that some senior House Republicans have complained are ill-advised and serve only to give more political ammunition to critics of the Bush administration.
The Senate inquiry has been hampered by the Pentagon's failure to provide it with a complete copy of Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's report examining abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. After protests from committee staff last week, the Pentagon attributed the omissions to technical glitches and pledged to supply the missing pages. Although Warner has said he believes the department is working in good faith with the committee, some congressional staff members suspect the Pentagon withheld particularly sensitive documents.
"We need a master commission," said Eugene R. Fidell, a prominent lawyer who handles defense cases. "This is a very grave set of issues. The country's international reputation is on the line."
Pentagon officials defended the investigations undertaken so far as sufficiently empowered to probe where necessary, including up the Central Command chain and into the upper reaches of the Pentagon.
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