Monday, August 02, 2004

A Battle Over Blame

By Michael Hirsh and John Barry

Rumsfeld may be rebuked by his own commission investigating prison abuse.

James Schlesinger has always been a hawk. But in four decades of public life, the square-jawed former professor has also been known as mulishly independent, whether as Defense and Energy secretary or CIA director. (President Gerald Ford, annoyed by Schlesinger's arrogance, fired him.) All of which could add up to an unpleasant surprise for another old Washington lion who is not renowned for his humility: Donald Rumsfeld. In mid-August, the commission that Schlesinger chairs - handpicked by Rumsfeld from members of his own Defense Policy Board - is expected to issue its final report on abuses by U.S. interrogators stemming from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal. NEWSWEEK has learned the Schlesinger panel is leaning toward the view that failures of command and control at the Pentagon helped create the climate in which the abuses occurred.

The four-member commission's report is still being drafted and its final conclusions are not yet definite. But there is strong sentiment to assign some responsibility up the line to senior civilian officials at the Pentagon, including Rumsfeld, several sources close to the discussions say. The Defense secretary is expected to be criticized, either explicitly or implicitly, for failing to provide adequate numbers of properly trained troops for detaining and interrogating captives in Afghanistan and Iraq. His office may also be rebuked for not setting clear interrogation rules and for neglecting to see that guidelines were followed. The commissioners "are taking an unvarnished look at the issue as a whole," said a source close to the commission. "A more extensive look than some people had initially thought they might take."

"Some people" includes Rumsfeld himself. The Defense secretary's original charter for the commission asked only for the Schlesinger team's "professional advice" and obliquely urged them to steer clear of "issues of personal accountability," which Rumsfeld said "will be resolved through established military justice and administrative procedures." (After Schlesinger argued about the charter language, Rumsfeld allowed that "any information you may develop will be welcome.") Rumsfeld also indicated that he expected members to spend most of their 45-day inquiry reviewing the findings of the other "procedures." These include five ongoing inquiries into abuses, none of which is designed to probe responsibility beyond the uniformed ranks.

But the commission quickly struck out on its own, recruiting 20 investigators and sending them as far afield as Afghanistan and Iraq. They also re-interviewed most of the principal players in the abuse scandal - including the commanders at Abu Ghraib, senior Pentagon civilians and Rumsfeld - and obtained classified material that even the Senate Armed Services Committee hasn't yet seen. Pentagon spokesman Joseph Yoswa said he had no comment on the forthcoming report.

As Schlesinger and his team rush to complete their draft report by Friday - the final version is expected Aug. 18 - participants say there's been a good amount of contention over how high to go and how tough to be. The central "philosophical debate," sources say, turns on whether Al Qaeda poses such a new challenge that the old rules of detention and interrogation are no longer adequate, or whether America should stick to its traditions and treaty obligations, even against an adversary that respects neither. Despite Schlesinger's willingness to criticize, to go "where the facts and information take them," as one source said, he tends to take the hawkish, this-is-a-new-war side. Arrayed with him is said to be commission director James Blackwell, a civilian contractor. On the traditionalist, Geneva side of the debate are former Defense secretary Harold Brown, a Democrat, and retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner. At one point, Schlesinger argued that Geneva Conventions did not apply to Afghanistan because the Taliban were not "reciprocating." He backed off when Brown countered that U.S. legal and moral standards conform to Geneva in any case.

Rumsfeld has been widely criticized for paring down the occupation force for Iraq. Until now, however, that criticism has rarely extended to the prison-abuse issue. But some commissioners believe that the 800th Military Police Brigade, which ran the Iraqi prison system, was badly overstretched and not trained well for detention duty. Previously, the brigade's 372nd MP Company - the main culprit in the Abu Ghraib abuses - had served as traffic cops.

Some on the commission also believe that Rumsfeld and senior officials failed early on to set up clear, baseline rules for interrogations - an ethical "stop" sign, in a sense. This opened the way to abuse in an atmosphere in which President George W. Bush and senior officials were demanding that interrogators obtain better intel and were openly questioning the Geneva Conventions. The lack of direction from the top created confusion at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, according to testimony heard by the Schlesinger commission. Documents indicate that interrogation officials often undercut or ignored Army Field Manual 34-52, the standard doctrine setting interrogation guidelines in conformance with Geneva. One example is a classified assessment of Army detention operations in Iraq done in the late summer of 2003 - a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK. While the author, the then Gitmo commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, refers at one point to "providing a humane environment," he does not mention Geneva protections or the field manual when he recommends that MPs "set conditions" for "successful exploitation of the internees."

The Schlesinger commission report is one of several slated for completion in the doldrums of mid-August, when few people are paying attention. But the report won't be the final word on abuse. The Senate Armed Services Committee will likely hold hearings in the fall, despite administration pressure on the chairman, Sen. John Warner, to wrap his investigation up quickly. And those hearings - with help from the Schlesinger team - could well determine how history will view Rumsfeld's tenure.

First published in the Newsweek on 09 August 2004 Issue


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