For anyone with the time to wade through 400-plus pages and the resources
to decode them, the two reports issued this week on the Abu Ghraib prison
are an indictment of the way the Bush administration set the stage for
Iraqi prisoners to be brutalized by American prison guards, military
intelligence officers and private contractors.

The Army’s internal investigation, released yesterday, showed that the
torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib went far beyond the actions of a few
sadistic military police officers – the administration’s chosen culprits.
It said that 27 military intelligence soldiers and civilian contractors
committed criminal offenses, and that military officials hid prisoners from
the Red Cross. Another report, from a civilian panel picked by Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, offers the dedicated reader a dotted line from
President Bush’s decision to declare Iraq a front in the war against
terror, to government lawyers finding ways to circumvent the Geneva
Conventions, to Mr. Rumsfeld’s bungled planning of the occupation and
understaffing of the ground forces in Iraq, to the hideous events at Abu
Ghraib prison.

That was a service to the public, but the civilian panel did an enormous
disservice by not connecting those dots and walking away from any real
exercise in accountability. Instead, Pentagon officials who are never named
get muted criticism for issuing confusing memos and not monitoring things
closely enough. This is all cast as “leadership failure” – the 21st-century
version of the Nixonian “mistakes were made” evasion – that does not
require even the mildest reprimand for Mr. Rumsfeld, who should have
resigned over this disaster months ago. Direct condemnation is reserved for
the men and women in the field, from the military police officers sent to
guard prisoners without training to the three-star general in Iraq.

Still, the dots are there, making it clear that the road to Abu Ghraib
began well before the invasion of Iraq, when the administration created the
category of “unlawful combatants” for suspected members of Al Qaeda and the
Taliban who were captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay,
Cuba. Interrogators wanted to force these prisoners to talk in ways that
are barred by American law and the Geneva Conventions, and on Aug. 1, 2002,
Justice Department lawyers produced the infamous treatise on how to
construe torture as being legal..


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