THE BUSH administration still seeks to mislead Congress and the public about the policies that contributed to the criminal abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Yesterday's smoke screen was provided by Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Mr. Cambone assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration's policy had always been to strictly observe the Geneva Conventions in Iraq; that all procedures for interrogations in Iraq were sanctioned under the conventions; and that the abuses of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison were consequently the isolated acts of individuals. These assertions are contradicted by International Red Cross and Army investigators, by U.S. generals overseeing the prisoners, and by Mr. Cambone himself.
Start with adherence to the Geneva Conventions, which Mr. Cambone's boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has publicly derided as outdated and which the administration acknowledges are not being adhered to at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison. Mr. Cambone said yesterday that the administration considered all detainees at Abu Ghraib to be covered by either the Third or Fourth Geneva Convention. But he also confirmed a statement by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the current commander at Abu Ghraib, that techniques officially available for interrogation have included hooding, sleep deprivation and stress positions. An official report by the Red Cross confirms that those techniques as well as harsher ones have been used systematically, and not only at Abu Ghraib. The report says they have been employed by tactical military intelligence units all over Iraq, including at a permanent facility at the Baghdad airport. According to Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), an Army report says that the policy for Iraq specifies that permission of the commanding general can be sought for the use of "sleep management, sensory deprivation, isolation longer than 30 days and dogs."
The Third Geneva Convention, which applies to prisoners of war and captured insurgents, says that they "may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind" as a way to make them answer questions. The Fourth Geneva Convention, which covers people under foreign occupation, says "no physical or moral coercion shall be exercised against" them, "in particular to obtain information from them or from third parties." A senior Army official, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, testified that the Army believes its "harsh" techniques are allowed under these provisions. The Red Cross, which is designated by the conventions as their monitoring organization, believes otherwise: That the U.S. practices are in violation was one of the principal findings of its February report. U.S. forces were systematically breaking the conventions in five major ways, the report found, three of which concerned the treatment of prisoners under interrogation. It described the abuse as "standard operating procedure."
Mr. Cambone made no attempt to reconcile his claim of U.S. adherence to international law with the actual procedures his office has helped to promulgate. Instead he insisted that the crimes at Abu Ghraib -- which, though they went beyond the established practices, were based on the same principles -- were the responsibility of the guards and their commanders, and not the intelligence-gathering system. In this he was contradicted by the witness sitting next to him, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who repeated the conclusion of his own investigation: that the practices were introduced by intelligence interrogators who were improperly placed in command of the guards.
These contradictions go to the heart of this scandal and its impact. The sickening abuse of Iraqi prisoners will do incalculable damage to American foreign policy no matter how the administration responds. But if President Bush and his senior officials would acknowledge their complicity in playing fast and loose with international law and would pledge to change course, they might begin to find a way out of the mess. Instead, they hope to escape from this scandal without altering or even admitting the improper and illegal policies that lie at its core. It is a vain hope, and Congress should insist on a different response.