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Report on prisoner abuse raises questions of accountability

WASHINGTON—A new report on the interrogation of prisoners in the war on terrorism, released Thursday by the Defense Department, prompted senators to question whether senior civilian and military leaders will be held accountable for abusive treatment.

Vice Adm. Albert Church, the Navy's former inspector general, defended his report as a "thorough, exhaustive look" at 71 "substantiated cases of abuse" involving about 120 detainees held in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.

Church told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a lack of guidelines and oversight, bad planning and a slow response to Red Cross warnings of abuse contributed to the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Pentagon policies, including some that allowed coercive interrogations, "did not authorize or condone abusive treatment," Church said.

He said he agreed with a key finding of the independent report by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger last year that abuses were "widespread," and that "there is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels."

Church added, however: "I was not tasked to assess personal responsibility at senior levels."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., noting that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had appointed Church last May, said the Defense Department "is not able to assess accountability at senior levels" and called for an independent investigation.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee chairman, said that issue also troubled him: "There has not been finality as to the assessment of accountability—more work has to be done by this committee."

Critics of the inquiries into prisoner abuse charge that the Bush administration and the Pentagon have sidestepped the issue of "command climate." They ask whether the push for better intelligence encouraged lower-ranking soldiers to regard prisoners as sub-human and treat them harshly. Many also ask why investigators have all but ignored the military principle that senior officers are always accountable for their subordinates' actions.

Rumsfeld reportedly offered to resign twice last year in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, after photos of abused captives damaged U.S. standing in Iraq and the Middle East. President Bush decided to keep Rumsfeld.

Since Abu Ghraib, at least eight military investigations have found fault with interrogations and treatment, but none has focused on top leaders.

Church said most of the abuse cases he reviewed didn't involve Abu Ghraib, because that was already under investigation. He found "no single, over-arching explanation" for the abuses, although a "breakdown of good order and discipline" in some units was a contributing factor.

He also found that the pressure of fighting an insurgency against unseen enemies in Iraq was taking a toll on soldiers, much as it did in Vietnam.

"Our service members may have at times permitted the enemy's treacherous tactics and disregard for the law of war—exemplified by improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings—to erode their own standards of conduct," his report said.

Church also noted that about 1 million U.S. service members had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, "and the vast majority served honorably." He said that abuses were relatively few, given that about 50,000 prisoners have been detained in the last four years.

Several senators focused on what Levin called "gaps and inadequacies" in the report. They criticized Church for not interviewing L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq who had warned about abuses in detention, or FBI agents who reported that they witnessed abusive treatment at Guantanamo.

"These are stunning omissions," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate. "This is not the thorough, complete, no-holds-barred report that many of us expected."

Church said the FBI reports surfaced in December, after his team had concluded its work, and are now the subject of two investigations at Guantanamo.

In the tensest exchange of the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was tortured while held prisoner by North Vietnam, chastised Church for the Bush administration's policy of classifying some enemy fighters, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, as ineligible for protections as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

"I worry very much that if we decide that a certain country's military personnel are not eligible for treatment under a convention we signed, then wouldn't it be logical to expect they would declare, as the North Vietnamese did, that American prisoners are not eligible for protection?" McCain said.

Church said he agreed with Bush's policy.

Human Rights Watch, which monitors prisoner abuse worldwide, criticized the report as a "whitewash." Church, at a later briefing at the Pentagon, said some people "were just unhappy with the findings."

"People would like this to be a lot of things it isn't," Church said. "No one could call it a whitewash."

Pentagon officials acknowledged that the series of investigations showed serious problems with detentions in Iraq, including poor training, a lack of guidelines for interrogations and breakdowns in discipline.

Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has instituted a new policy that includes "a more limited set of techniques" for interrogations and safeguards and reporting requirements to prevent abuse, Church said.

The 21-page declassified summary of the Church report is available on under "detainee investigations."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.