What began several months ago with the emergence of shocking photographs showing a handful of U.S. troops abusing detainees in Iraq has led this week to a broad indictment of U.S. military leadership and acknowledgement in two official reports that mistreatment of prisoners was more widespread than previously disclosed.
The reports have served to undercut earlier portrayals of the abuse as largely the result of criminal misconduct by a small group of individuals. As recently as last month, an assessment by the Army's inspector general concluded the incidents could not be ascribed to systemic problems, describing them as "aberrations."
But the findings yesterday of another Army investigation offered a more critical appraisal of what led to the mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. It implicated 27 military intelligence soldiers in abuse, providing some support for assertions by some of the seven military guards previously charged that they were not acting alone. Counting other intelligence, medical and civilian contract personnel cited for failing to report the abuse, and three more military police officers alleged to have engaged in abuse, the report appeared to raise to nearly 50 the number of people who may face charges or disciplinary action for misconduct at Abu Ghraib.
Further, the investigation found that senior officers in Iraq bore responsibility for what occurred by failing to exercise adequate oversight and neglecting to provide "clear, consistent guidance" for handling detainees.
On Tuesday, an independent panel led by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger went higher up the chain of command. It cited the Pentagon's most senior civilian and military authorities for setting the stage for the abuse by issuing confused guidance, planning poorly and responding too slowly when problems arose.
Both groups said they could find no evidence of policy of abuse or instructions from senior U.S. authorities approving mistreatment of detainees. But taken together, their reports provide a more complete and searing critique than before -- one likely to reverberate as additional prosecutions are launched and more congressional hearings are held to examine the question of accountability.
Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry signaled yesterday that he intends to make responsibility for the abuse an issue in the campaign, reiterating a call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said the Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, will seek to review officer promotions.
"We're going to ask the Department of Defense to examine this promotion system to determine whether or not some who are unqualified for higher responsibilities are slipping through the network," he said at a news conference.
Asked whether Rumsfeld should resign, Warner said he "essentially" agreed with Schlesinger's rejection of the idea Tuesday. But Warner noted that "the commanding officer has to take responsibility for those actions of his subordinates that are proven to be unprofessional or downright wrong."
Even with the widening assignment of blame, defense officials sought to portray the abuse as far from representative of U.S. military conduct. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. DiRita noted that the number implicated, while greater, "is still only a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 troops who have served in Iraq."
He also said in an interview that too much of the media reporting, in the wake of the Schlesinger report, has centered on the extent to which Rumsfeld and other top officials might have contributed to conditions under which the abuse occurred.
"If you look at the tenor of the coverage, it's been focused on policies and procedures that are at best indirectly associated with the activities at that prison," DiRita said.
Army officials yesterday emphasized that the violent and sexual abuse described in the new report were mostly the work of a group of guards and military intelligence personnel not conducting interrogations but amusing themselves. This was especially true, they said, of the incidents captured in the now-famous photographs of naked, frightened detainees being stacked in a pyramid, terrorized by dogs or forced to stand hooded on a box.
Still, the Schlesinger report, which examined problems throughout the system of U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said that about one-third of the substantiated cases of prisoner abuse took place during interrogations. It also disclosed a sharp rise in the number of cases of alleged abuse -- up to 300, 66 of which have been confirmed so far.
Yesterday's findings by Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones and Maj. Gen. George R. Fay also helped to substantiate a major pillar of the defense offered by the military guards already facing charges. They have asserted that their actions came at the direction of military intelligence personnel.
"Although self-serving, these claims do have some basis in fact," Fay said in his portion of the report.
The report appeared to end any prospect that the senior commander in Iraq at the time of the abuse -- Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez -- will be promoted further. Although the report found that Sanchez was not "directly involved" in the abuse, it faulted him and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, for failing "to ensure proper staff oversight of detention and interrogation operations." Their staff also "reacted inadequately" to indications and warnings that problems existed at Abu Ghraib, the report said.
The report did cite extenuating circumstances, noting that Sanchez and his staff were focused on fighting a growing insurgency and lacked sufficient resources to handle detainees. It commended the general and his aides for performing "above expectations in the over-all scheme" of Operation Enduring Freedom -- praise that appeared to signal no disciplinary action against Sanchez but not enough to absolve him of some blame.
The highest-ranking officers likely to face punishment in connection with the scandal are the two brigade commanders -- Col. Thomas M. Pappas of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski of the 800th Military Police Brigade. They were criticized in both reports this week for failure to provide oversight and to discipline soldiers.