Lawmakers shift tone on accountability for prison abuse scandal

Knight Ridder Newspapers

A year ago, when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, several U.S. senators warned that top military officers and civilian policy-makers must share the blame for lower-ranking soldiers who abused prisoners.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, while the scandal has widened to include allegations of mistreatment at facilities in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the senators’ tough talk has mellowed considerably.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia all initially demanded accountability up the chain of command for poor policy and failed oversight.

An independent panel of experts concluded last year that high-ranking officials were indirectly responsible for the abuses because “the weaknesses at Abu Ghraib were well-known and that corrective action could have been taken and should have been taken.”

As Graham put it last year: “We just don’t want a bunch of privates and sergeants to be the scapegoats.”

The Pentagon’s now-ended investigations, however, while commending the punishment of low-level troops who perpetrated the abuses, punished just one flag-rank officer: Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski. Karpinski, the former commander of the Army Reserve’s 800th Military Police Brigade at Abu Ghraib, received an administrative reprimand.

While the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely hold a hearing on the culpability of senior officers in the near future, according to Warner, the talk from lawmakers today is decidedly less stern.

McCain, asked if he felt that high-ranking officers had been held sufficiently accountable for abuses at the Baghdad prison, replied: “I’d like to have a hearing on it and let them present their rationale before I make that decision.”

Warner said he was withholding judgment on the reports until he could call a hearing. But he said he had no timetable for calling one. “I’ve got some other issues I need to solve,” Warner said.

Graham, an Air Force colonel and a military judge with more than 20 years of service as an Air Force prosecutor and defense attorney, said he hoped another hearing would pursue the question of accountability.

But he also said he was satisfied with the treatment of “front-line abusers.” He added that “some high-ranking careers will be affected in terms of future promotion.”

“Some people who could have been promoted won’t be,” he said.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., also once urged the Pentagon to hold higher-ranking officers accountable.

On Friday, his office said Levin had no comment to make on the matter.

“We’re still reviewing the investigation,” said Jane Anderson, Levin’s assistant press secretary.

The senators’ shift in tone – from urgent to patient – dismays Reed Brody, the counsel for Human Rights Watch.

“Exactly what they have said they would not accept has come to pass,” Brody said. “It’s as if there’s a wall of immunity surrounding people who set the policies.”

Brody noted allegations that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the military’s top commander in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who led the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, had authorized harsh interrogation tactics that could have led to abuse, such as the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners.

“The only thing that will restore credibility in the eyes of the world is when those responsible for these policies are fully investigated,” Brody said.

There’s nothing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice on the responsibility of senior commanders for their subordinates’ misdeeds. Army Field Manual 27-10, however, says a commander is responsible if he or she knew, or should have known, that subordinate troops were violating laws of war.

While Warner’s hearing, if held, will likely determine whether new looks are given at the role of military and civilian policy-makers, some in Congress feel that it’s past time to move on.

“I think we’re doing a great disservice to all of our troops, and to morale, to our ability to interrogate, by stringing this thing on,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I just think we need to back and finish the war.”

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