Our Military's Failure of Accountability

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The U.S. military is in dire ethical straits.

Last August a four-star general was fired for having had an extramarital affair [front page, Aug. 10]. Yet the day before, a Pentagon spokesman gave a limp explanation for why no two-, three- or four-star officer had been reprimanded for the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. One does not have to condone adultery to sympathize with the general who was a scapegoat for the military's failure to exercise discipline in the prison cases.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita said that "the two most senior people responsible for the prison were admonished in career-ending actions" [letters, Aug. 8]. That would be a one-star general and a colonel. Mr. Di Rita does not understand the military's concept of responsibility if he believes they were the "most senior people responsible for the prison." The buck for such errors stops at the Oval Office. The blame for Abu Ghraib should have been levied closer to the president than the brigadier who commanded the prison.

These offenses were serious. Some prisoners died. Others were treated in ways that amounted to torture. Still others were humiliated shamefully. The image of our country as a defender of human rights was badly damaged.

Second, similar abuses have occurred at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and probably in those undisclosed CIA places of detention. The problem is far wider than one brigadier and one colonel.

Other military spokesmen have argued that more senior generals were not responsible because they did not know what was taking place at these prisons. That attitude is antithetical to the ethical fabric that holds a military organization together. The job of senior officers is to know what goes on in their command. Young men and women cannot be expected to respond without hesitation to orders in combat if they do not believe their superiors will be held responsible for capriciously or foolishly ordering them to risk their lives.

Much is at stake in this failure to hold someone at an appropriate level accountable for what were grievous and disgraceful performances in these prisons.

STANSFIELD TURNER

Great Falls

The writer, a retired Navy admiral, was director of central intelligence from 1977 to 1981.


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