For months, John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Committee, has been gamely resisting pressure from Republican leaders to
call off his hearings on the Abu Ghraib prison disaster – the only real
sign of life on Capitol Hill on this important issue. Mr. Warner was
patiently awaiting the outcome of a set of Pentagon investigations,
including one by the Army and one by a civilian panel set up by Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Both issued reports this week, and it’s clear
that Mr. Warner still has work to do.

The Army report did a painfully professional job of criticizing its own
enlisted men and officers, including the three-star general who commanded
American forces in Iraq at the time of the prison brutality and his
two-star deputy. But it was not up to the Army to review the actions of the
policy makers in Washington. It was also pretty obvious that Mr. Rumsfeld’s
panel – two former secretaries of defense, a retired general and a former
Republican congresswoman – was not going to produce a clear-eyed assessment
of responsibility.

The two new reports do make it starkly evident that President Bush’s
political decision to declare the war over far too prematurely and Mr.
Rumsfeld’s subsequent bungling of the occupation set the stage for the
prison abuses. But the panel announced that it did not see any need to hold
the secretary accountable, or even to subject him to any real direct
criticism – even though its members thought the events warranted criminal
charges against dozens of uniformed men and women.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Warner was careful to leave open the
possibility that his committee would disagree with the panel’s conclusions
and that Congress would need to investigate Abu Ghraib on its own. He even
pointedly reminded Mr. Rumsfeld that the secretary of defense is “captain
of the ship,” and “ultimately has to take responsibility.” But Mr. Warner
has set a schedule for further action that does not promise to lead to a
real investigation, or to produce any satisfying answers for the public
about Abu Ghraib, before the election.

Mr. Warner scheduled a hearing on the civilian panel’s report for Sept. 9,
when the committee’s 25 members will get about eight minutes each for
questions and comments. After that hearing, and after the Defense
Department reacts to the report, and after the Pentagon finishes the
investigations still under way, Mr. Warner said it would be time to decide
what to do next. It’s understandable that the courtly and loyal Mr. Warner
would not want to push his party’s leaders too far this close to an
election. But the public has waited for months while Mr. Rumsfeld’s team
withheld documents from Congress and stonewalled senators’ questions.

The Senate Armed Services Committee should call upon the Congressional
leadership of both parties to form an investigative committee, with
subpoena powers, to review this disaster, which has damaged the reputation
of the American military and the United States around the world


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