Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's leadership of the Pentagon has been weighed by a jury of his peers and found somewhat wanting.
A report by a blue-ribbon panel he appointed to review the military establishment's role in creating and handling detainee abuse problems at Abu Ghraib prison said that the Iraq war plan he played a key role in shaping helped create the conditions that led to the scandal.
In addition, the four-member panel, which was led by one former defense secretary, James R. Schlesinger, and included another, Harold Brown, found that Rumsfeld's slow response when the Iraqi insurgency flared last summer worsened the situation.
But the report does not appear to threaten Rumsfeld's position as defense secretary, especially because all four panel members emphatically rejected the idea of calling for his resignation yesterday at a Pentagon news conference to release their conclusions.
The panel's findings do, however, provide new support for two central criticisms of the Rumsfeld team's approach in Iraq last year: that the invasion plan called for too few troops, half as many as were used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that the Pentagon failed to plan smartly for occupying the country after the United States defeated the Iraqi military.
Before the war, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, said publicly that he thought the invasion plan lacked sufficient manpower, and he was slapped down by the Pentagon's civilian leadership for saying so. After Baghdad fell, Rumsfeld dismissed reports of widespread looting and chaos as "untidy" signs of newfound freedom that were exaggerated by the media. And some State Department officials complained that their attempts to plan for postwar Iraq were largely disregarded by the Pentagon.
The concerns about troop strength expressed by retired generals during the war provoked angry denunciations by Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In April 2003, Rumsfeld, for example, commented that, "people were saying that the plan was terrible, and . . . there weren't enough people, and . . . there were going to be, you know, tens of thousands of casualties, and it was going to take forever."
Now a version of that criticism has been made by a panel appointed by Rumsfeld himself. One of the major factors leading to the detainee abuse, Brown said yesterday, was "the expectation by the Defense Department leadership, along with most of the rest of the administration, that following the collapse of the Iraqi regime through coalition military operations, there would be a stable successor regime that would soon emerge in Iraq."
As Schlesinger, the panel's chairman, tartly put it, the leaders of the military establishment "did look at history books. Unfortunately, it was the wrong history." He said they tended to focus on the refugee problems that followed the 1991 war, rather, he implied, than on other conflicts in which internal turmoil has followed an invasion.
Strikingly, given that Rumsfeld has made agility, adaptability and speed his bywords in pushing the military to transform itself, the panel also faulted the Pentagon's leadership for a flat-footed response to the outbreak of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq last summer.
"Any defense establishment should adapt quickly to new conditions as they arise," Schlesinger said. "And in this case, we were slow, at least in the judgment of the members of this panel, to adapt accordingly after the insurgency started in the summer of 2003."
He added, "There was a failure to reallocate resources once it was seen that there were severe problems at Abu Ghraib."
In delivering its mixed verdict, the Schlesinger panel endorsed Rumsfeld's handling of the scandal once it broke. "If there's something to be commended on this whole operation, it's the way the secretary of defense has approached the investigations," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, the third member of the panel.
"I think that overall, Secretary Rumsfeld has handled this extremely well," Brown added. "If the head of a department had to resign every time anyone down below did something wrong, it would be a very empty Cabinet table."
Indeed, although some members of Congress criticized Rumsfeld yesterday, there were no calls for him to step down. The harshest statement came from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who said, "Secretary Rumsfeld and other civilian leaders in the Pentagon bear significant responsibility for the fundamental failures that led to the torture and other abuse at Abu Ghraib. At a minimum, there was gross negligence at the highest levels in the Pentagon."
The report showed Rumsfeld's top uniformed brass did not help him out much in rapidly pivoting from the peacekeeping they expected to be conducting to fighting the guerrilla war that confronted them.
The panel repeatedly faulted the judgments and actions of the entire chain of senior generals involved: Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who for most of the time was the top U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq; his two bosses, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who stepped down as chief of the U.S. Central Command last summer as the insurgency was breaking out, and Franks's successor, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid; and Myers, the nation's top military officer.
"It would have been better had greater supervision been exercised . . . [and] there is failure at the senior levels of the Pentagon to exercise that supervision," Schlesinger said. "I think that more of that falls upon the . . . uniformed military than on the Office of the Secretary of Defense."
The report struck a tone of dismay in analyzing the sluggish response of the military bureaucracy to events in Iraq last summer and fall. It noted, for example, that a personnel plan for Sanchez's headquarters "was not finally approved until December 2003, six months into the insurgency." The result, the report concludes, was that Sanchez and his undermanned staff were overwhelmed and unable to take needed actions. In addition, the report blamed Sanchez for setting up a confused chain of command that made it difficult to determine the responsibilities of certain commanders.
The pervasive lack of troops, especially those with specialized skills, had a cascading effect that helped lead to the abuse, the report said. As the insurgency took off, frontline Army units, lacking interpreters, took to rounding up "any and all suspicious-looking persons -- all too often including women and children," it said. This indiscriminate approach resulted in a "flood" of detainees at Abu Ghraib that inundated demoralized and fatigued interrogators, it continued.
When asked whether anyone should resign over those findings, the panel members tended to sidestep the question, saying they were more interested in preventing the abuse from recurring than in fixing blame. But Brown made it clear that he expects some officers to suffer the consequences of their missteps. "At various levels, there was some dereliction of duty," he said. "At other levels, there were mistakes."
The bottom line, Brown said, is that, "A lot of careers are going to be ruined over this."
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.