THE ARMY'S attempt to hold itself accountable for the abuse of foreign prisoners is off to a terrible start. On Thursday, while the media and political worlds were focused on the report of the Sept. 11 commission, the Army inspector general released a 300-page summary of an investigation of "detainee operations" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though it identified 94 cases of confirmed or possible abuse, including 20 prisoner deaths, the probe concluded by sounding the defense offered up by the Pentagon ever since the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison were published: that the crimes did not result from Army policy and were not the fault of senior commanders but were "unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals."

This conclusion is contradicted by the independent investigations and reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross, by an earlier Army investigation undertaken before the scandal became public, and by testimony given to Congress. Oddly, it doesn't even square with some of the findings buried in the inspector general's own report, which confirm that commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan ordered "high-risk" interrogation procedures to be used on prisoners without adequate safeguards, training or regard for the Geneva Conventions.

No matter: The report effectively communicates the strategy of the military brass on the detainee affair, which is to focus blame on a few low-ranking personnel, shield all senior commanders from accountability, and deny or bury any facts that interfere with these aims. In that sense, the signal it sends to Congress is clear: The Pentagon cannot be counted on to reliably or thoroughly investigate the prisoner abuse affair. An independent probe by an outside authority is desperately needed.

To the credit of Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), the Senate Armed Services Committee quickly assembled for a hearing on the Army report, despite the not-so-subtle timing of its release, and some Republican as well as Democratic senators rightly voiced incredulity at the findings. They noted that, while identifying no "systemic failures" in the military, the inspector general's team chose not to investigate such episodes as the hiding of "ghost detainees" from the Red Cross -- a Geneva Convention violation that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has publicly stated was authorized by him. Nor did the investigation explore the handling of Red Cross reports by the staff of the Iraq commander in chief, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez -- which, rather than acting to stop abuses, reportedly tried to restrict further Red Cross access. In fact, no one above the rank of brigade commander was considered culpable, the inspector general candidly told the senators. "We think it ended there," said Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek.

Really? That's hard to square with the general's own report, which says that top U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, under pressure to collect more intelligence, "published high risk [interrogation] policies that presented a significant risk of misapplication if not trained and executed carefully." Yet "not all interrogators were trained," "some inspected units were unaware of the correct command policy," and some officers "with no training in interrogation techniques began conducting their own interrogation sessions." Moreover, some of the techniques set forth by Gen. Sanchez and other senior commanders previously had been approved only for "unlawful combatants" held at Guantanamo Bay. That "appears to contradict the terms of" the Pentagon's own legal judgments, which said some methods permissible at Guantanamo could not be used in Iraq.

All this -- and yet, purportedly, there were no failures of policy, and responsibility ended at the level of a lieutenant colonel, or a reserve one-star general. The senators who rejected this whitewash were correct: It is implausible and unacceptable. If the reputation and integrity of the Army are to be restored, some other authority will need to do better.