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Impunity

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A YEAR AGO this week, the release of shocking photographs of naked and hooded Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison alerted the world to serious human rights abuses by U.S. forces. Those images, it turned out, were the tip of an iceberg: Subsequent investigations by the media, human rights groups and the military itself revealed hundreds of cases of torture and abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay prison, including scores of suspicious deaths. A trail of documents showed that abusive interrogation techniques, such as the use of dogs and painful shackling, had been approved by senior military commanders and the secretary of defense. Even more extreme practices, such as simulated drowning and the withholding of pain medication, were authorized for the CIA at White House meetings presided over by President Bush's counsel.

All these facts are undisputed. Yet Pentagon officials have now made it known that the last of the official investigations of prisoner abuse, by the Army inspector general, has ended by exonerating all but one senior officer, a female reserve brigadier general who was not directly involved in the abuses and who received an administrative reprimand. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; former CIA director George J. Tenet; and Alberto R. Gonzales, the former White House counsel who is now attorney general, are excused: In fact, they were never directly investigated. The only people to suffer criminal prosecution from one of the most serious human rights scandals in U.S. history remain a handful of lower-ranking soldiers, including seven reservists implicated in those first photographs from Abu Ghraib. That the affair would end in this way is even more disgraceful for the American political system than the abuses themselves.

Because there has never been a truly thorough or independent investigation -- the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have repeatedly rejected calls for a commission or a special prosecutor -- we may never fully know how such widespread and serious war crimes came about. But even the limited disclosures that have taken place make clear the culpability of several senior officers whom the Army has exonerated:

Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then top commander in Iraq, signed an order on Sept. 14, 2003, authorizing a number of interrogation methods that violated the Geneva Conventions, which legally applied in Iraq. These included the use of guard dogs to "exploit Arab fear of dogs," a practice documented in the Abu Ghraib photos. Gen. Sanchez subsequently misled Congress, testifying under oath last May 19 that "I have never approved the use of any of those methods" appearing over his signature.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller commanded the Guantanamo Bay prison when prisoners were subjected to abuses documented by visiting FBI agents, as well as the International Red Cross, which called them "tantamount to torture." Gen. Miller also visited Abu Ghraib in 2003: According to one official investigation, dogs were introduced there at his suggestion.

Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, as the senior intelligence officer on Gen. Sanchez's staff, was responsible for intelligence gathering at Abu Ghraib; she also received, and failed to act on, reports of abuses in the fall of 2003.

Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, Gen. Sanchez's deputy, was responsible for detention operations; he reportedly approved interrogation plans involving the use of dogs, and failed to respond to a Red Cross report about the systematic abuse of prisoners in November 2003.

When the abuses first came to light, a host of legislators -- led by Republican Sens. John W. Warner (Va.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) -- promised that everyone culpable would be held accountable, no matter how senior. Now the outcome they said they would not countenance, the limitation of punishment to a handful of lowly scapegoats, has come to pass. Have the senators forgotten their words?

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