PRESIDENT BUSH'S persistence in describing the abuse of foreign prisoners as an isolated problem at one Iraqi prison is blatantly at odds with the facts seeping out from his administration. These include mounting reports of crimes at detention facilities across Iraq and Afghanistan and evidence that detention policies the president approved helped set the stage for torture and homicide. Yes, homicide: The most glaring omission from the president's account is that at least 37 people have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and that at least 10 of these cases are suspected criminal killings of detainees by U.S. interrogators or soldiers.
The deaths reveal much about the true nature of the still-emerging prisoner scandal. First, only a minority of them occurred at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad; nine of the 10 homicides acknowledged by the Pentagon occurred elsewhere. Second, the administration has done its best to cover up the killings: They have been reported only after news of them leaked to the media, and details about most of them are still undisclosed.
No one has been criminally charged in any of the cases, even though some date to December 2002. Investigations have been shoddy and secretive. And no senior officer or administration official has accepted responsibility or been held accountable for allowing unlawful killings to take place under his or her command. Had it not been for the leak of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, which record less serious crimes, it is probable that none of the deaths in Iraq would have become public knowledge.
Take the case of Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, the former chief of Iraqi air defenses, who died Nov. 26 at a detention facility at Al Qaim, northwest of Baghdad. After his death the Pentagon released a statement reporting that "it appeared Mowhoush died of natural causes." That was a lie. In fact, according to an autopsy report, Gen. Mowhoush died of "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression." According to documents first obtained by the Denver Post, two soldiers slid a sleeping bag over him and rolled him repeatedly from his back to his stomach; one then sat on his chest and covered his mouth. Only after the Denver Post's report last week did the Pentagon acknowledge the truth and say that a homicide investigation was underway.
Or take the case of two Afghan detainees who died at Bagram airbase in December 2002. In March 2003 the New York Times reported that their deaths had been ruled homicides; only then did the Pentagon say that an investigation was underway. But no further information became available about the case until this month, when the Times learned that the prisoners died while being interrogated by personnel from the same intelligence unit that later served at Abu Ghraib. After 17 months, no one has been charged or otherwise held responsible for the deaths, nor are Pentagon officials able to plausibly explain why there has been no conclusion to the investigation.
Nine of the 10 homicides acknowledged by the Pentagon occurred "either before or during interrogation sessions that may have led to the detainee's death," a senior official told a briefing last week. Those interrogations were conducted by various units; at least one was in the hands of the CIA. But all were operating under loosened rules for interrogations developed at the Pentagon after 2001, after Mr. Bush's decision that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to detainees in Afghanistan. Techniques approved for use, such as sensory deprivation and shackling, played a role in several of the homicides. For example, a detainee named Abdul Jaleel, held by Special Forces in Asad, Iraq, died on Jan. 11 after he was gagged and shackled by his hands to the top of his door cell.
It is horrifying to contemplate that U.S. interrogators have tortured and killed foreign prisoners and that their superiors have ignored or covered up their crimes -- and yet that is where the available facts point. Pentagon officials say they will pursue investigations vigorously and that those guilty of crimes will be brought to justice. It is essential to the preservation of this country's fundamental values that they do so. It is essential also to examine the consequences in the field of policy decisions made by the most senior officials in Washington. But the sorry record of the Bush administration -- and the president's own refusal to speak the truth about it -- suggests that justice will require vigorous and sustained intervention by outside parties, beginning with Congress.