WASHINGTON—The abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers abroad, first depicted in hundreds of graphic photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, was "widespread" and responsibility for it extended from commanders on the ground all the way to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself, an independent panel concluded Tuesday.
The findings are in sharp contrast to how military officials first sought to minimize the prisoner abuse in Iraq. However, the panel did not seek the resignation of any top-level Defense Department official, nor did it recommend disciplinary action against them.
Rather, the panel found that U.S. forces were unprepared for the "chaos" that followed the war in Iraq and for handling the large numbers of people—soldiers, terrorists and criminals—who were detained in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since Nov. 2001, the panel found, the American military has imprisoned 50,000 people in 43 separate facilities.
"We believe there is personal and institutional responsibility right up the chain of command as far as Washington is concerned," former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, chairman of the four-member panel, said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing.
The report represents the first in-depth accounting of the roles senior Pentagon officials played in fostering what critics have called a "climate of abuse" at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
However, the report omits any examination of the role played by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency, even though CIA personnel have been linked to at least two deaths in Iraq and one death in Afghanistan.
The report found that abuse was neither confined to Abu Ghraib, nor to a small group of rogue military police officers who were photographed tormenting detainees at the notorious Iraqi prison. Out of 66 cases of confirmed abuse, eight occurred in Guantanamo, three in Afghanistan and 55 in Iraq, the report stated. Another 145 cases of alleged abuse are under investigation.
Rumsfeld, who asked the panel to conduct its review on May 12 about two weeks after pictures taken at Abu Ghraib were aired on television, did not respond directly to the panel's criticism of himself.
In written statement, Rumsfeld said:
"The panel has provided important information and recommendations that will be of assistance in our on-going efforts to improve detention operations."
The panel recommended that the Pentagon reform its policies on detention and interrogation, including the way it defines detainees and the relationship between military police and military intelligence. It also called for clear guidelines for the interaction of the CIA and the Defense Department.
The panel included former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, former U.S. Rep. Tillie K. Fowler and Air Force General Charles Horner.
Schlesinger said the "insufficient response" from senior leadership to chaos at Abu Ghraib and confusion over interrogation polices in Iraq and elsewhere did not warrant senior resignations.
"At various levels there was some dereliction of duty, at other levels there were mistakes," Horner said. "A lot of careers are going to be ruined over this."
The report said that "dozens" of non-judicial punishments have been given to abusers, information the Pentagon had largely declined to make public. A second report by two army generals, scheduled to be released Wednesday, is expected to recommend disciplinary procedures against more than two-dozen military personnel.
Criminal charges are being pressed in only a handful of cases, including the seven members of a military police company that served at Abu Ghraib and a CIA contractor who was charged with the death of a prisoner in Afghanistan.
The report provided an explanation for the paucity of criminal prosecutions: investigations are complete in just 155 of the 300 incidents of alleged detainee abuse. Some of the incidents are already nearly two years old.
The report confirmed that both military police officers and military interrogators have been involved in abuses. It said one in three of all cases of confirmed abuse were linked to interrogations and one in five are alleged to involve Special Operations Forces.
Special forces in Afghanistan adopted aggressive interrogation techniques that were inconsistent with Army policy and later those practices were copied by the officer in charge of interrogations at Abu Ghraib, Capt. Carolyn Wood of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion
However, the report stressed that the abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib, which triggered the panel's review and the other investigations, were not part of authorized interrogations but represented "deviant behavior" and "purposeless sadism."
Schlesinger said the Abu Ghraib abuse was inflicted by "freelancers" engaging in "Animal House behavior" on the night shift on Cell Block 1.
Schlesinger and other panel members emphasized that there was no official policy permitting the abuse and that the allegations involve only a small fraction of the 50,000 people detained by U.S. forces, but they stressed that a failure in leadership led to the abuses.
Panel members identified key misjudgments by top officials. For example, the erroneous assumption that Saddam Hussein's government would be quickly replaced by another regime had a cascading effect on planning.
The army failed to anticipate the complexity of the mission it was undertaking and to provide adequate resources to troops in Iraq, the report noted. Even after a violent insurgency took hold, leaders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at the Army's Central Command did not consider adding additional forces to the handle detention and interrogation operations.
"There was chaos at Abu Ghraib," Schlesinger observed. Army leaders should have "known about and reacted to" the limitations faced by the military police brigade that was manning the prison and other detention facilities.
The report blamed Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski for not urgently requesting additional resources. "We believe LTG Sanchez should have taken stronger action," the report stated.
A second key misjudgment identified in the report was the decision to create various classes of detainees and to allow the use of harsher interrogation techniques on some detainees, but not others.
The report found that interrogation techniques that had been explicitly approved by Rumsfeld for use in Guantanamo only migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, and that interrogators became confused over which techniques were authorized and which weren't.
"Some incidents of abuse were clearly cases of misconduct," the report stated. "Other incidents resulted from misinterpretations of law or policy or confusion about what interrogation techniques were permitted by law or local SOPs."
A particular source of confusion was the use of military dogs in interrogations. Though dogs were not used in interrogations in Guantanamo, they were requested by the commander of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib prison. The report said that there was subsequently a number of abuses related to the use of dogs in interrogations and that dogs were also used by military police "for sadistic pleasure."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.