Cynics will not be surprised to learn that senior military commanders and Bush administration officials are on the verge of avoiding any accountability for the scandal of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan -- despite the enormous damage done by that affair to U.S. standing in Iraq and around the world; despite the well-documented malfeasance and possible criminal wrongdoing by those officials; despite the contrasting prosecution of low-ranking soldiers.
President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld still refuse to acknowledge the established facts of the case, much less respond to them. Investigations by the Army of itself have predictably stopped at the rank of colonel, while the CIA refuses to cooperate with any investigation but its own. The head of the outside panel picked by Rumsfeld to deflect calls for a more independent inquiry, James Schlesinger, spoke warmly of his "35 years of association" with him. Congress is controlled by a Republican leadership with no desire to challenge the White House and the Pentagon -- even if there were not an election fewer than 60 days away.
That's why what was remarkable about the latest round of congressional hearings on the subject last week was not the sandbagging of the Pentagon brass (we made a distinction between culpability and responsibility), or the windy excuses offered by Schlesinger (you have to look at the broader context), or the predictable and mostly ineffective challenges of the Democrats.
What was genuinely surprising, and a little encouraging, were the signs that a handful of Republicans in both congressional houses are unwilling to play by the script. In spite of the dictates of partisanship, they rejected the Pentagon's excuses as well as the whitewash of policymakers -- and they insisted that lowly prison guards and interrogators should not be the only ones to face consequences.
Some of the mavericks are familiar: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the failure to investigate CIA misdeeds in Iraq a "bad movie." Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), a skeptic of the Iraq invasion, said of Schlesinger's conclusion that no Bush policies encouraged abuses, "I would like to suggest that others" -- as in the rest of the world -- "may have reached a different conclusion."
More interesting are the Republicans whose loyalty to the uniformed military has caused them to recoil from the orchestrated whitewash. There is Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), a former Air Force officer, who asked how the Defense Department could have "violated its own policies" by ordering some prisoners in Iraq to be held "outside of the Geneva Conventions" -- a step mandated, in at least one case, by Rumsfeld.
There is Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who so far has stuck to his promise to pursue the abuse allegations wherever they lead. In a little-noticed power play on Thursday, Warner politely but firmly rejected the conclusion of Army investigators that neither the former Iraq commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, nor anyone on his staff deserved prosecution or any other formal sanction. Citing the investigative record -- which shows that Sanchez signed orders allowing dogs to be used to terrify prisoners, and that two generals and a colonel who reported to him were either complicit in those acts or failed to report ongoing abuses at Abu Ghraib prison -- Warner ordered the generals to review the cases again to determine if the criminal charge of dereliction of duty applied, and to report back to him.
Then there is Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch conservative best known, until now, for his relentless prosecution of Bill Clinton as an impeachment manager. Graham served for more than six years as an Air Force lawyer; to this day he is a reserve judge on the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals. Like most military lawyers, Graham is outraged by the Bush administration's twisting of legal standards governing prisoner interrogations, and unlike Rumsfeld's handpicked investigators, he doesn't shrink from making a connection between those decisions and the abuses in Iraq.
At Thursday's hearing, Graham said he would ask that the committee release "inappropriately" classified memos from military lawyers. "Those memos," he said, "suggest that those interrogation techniques that were being proposed by civilian authorities" at the White House, the Justice Department and in Rumsfeld's office "were way out of bounds; that they violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they violated international law and they would get our people in trouble."
Graham wants "an appropriate response" for "those people who tried to cut the corners too close [at] the Justice Department and the White House [and] set in motion some legal reasoning that literally got our people in trouble." He said, hopefully, "we'll probably get a better answer to this after November; I'm convinced of that." Maybe that will prove true -- but only if Graham, Warner and the other Republican dissenters make it so.