An Army investigation disclosed Thursday that it had reviewed nearly 100 cases involving prisoners in U.S. hands who were abused or died in custody in Iraq and elsewhere, but described the misconduct as “aberrations” committed by a few soldiers -- not a systemic failure.
The report on the five-month investigation, the first of 11 inquiries sparked by sexual abuse and humiliation of war detainees in Iraq, was greeted with skepticism by Democrats and some Republicans in Congress who had expected a more critical look at the military prison system.
Some lawmakers privately questioned the timing of the report, which was released on the day the findings of the Sept. 11 commission dominated the news.
Although the investigation by Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, the Army’s inspector general, made 52 recommendations for preventing abuses in the future, it blamed the abuses on “unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals, coupled with the failure of a few leaders to provide adequate monitoring, supervision, and leadership over those soldiers.”
The 94 confirmed and alleged cases -- called “regrettable” in the Mikolashek report -- reflect a higher figure than previously reported by the Pentagon, but the report says the number is small considering that 50,000 detainees were in U.S. custody worldwide. The cases include 20 deaths of detainees under U.S. military control, the report states.
However, the total number of abused prisoners is likely to be considerably higher. The report, for example, counts multiple incidents of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad as a single case.
The Mikolashek report cites serious flaws in the prison system, including a shortage of interrogators and interpreters; inadequately trained intelligence officers; and detentions lasting for longer periods than Army guidelines recommend. But the inspector general said he detected no “pattern of abuse.”
The report is at odds with studies the International Committee of the Red Cross presented to the military this year concluding that the abusive tactics at Abu Ghraib -- including threatening prisoners with military dogs and forcing detainees to perform humiliating sex acts -- were done “in a systematic way.”
The inspector general’s team reviewed detainee and interrogation operations at 26 locations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the continental United States. The report details several previously disclosed instances of prisoner abuse, such as an incident under investigation in which a platoon of soldiers forced two Iraqi prisoners to jump into the Tigris River, causing one to drown. The platoon sergeant, according to the report, apparently authorized the act. Charges have been filed in the case.
Previously undisclosed cases are also detailed, such as an incident in which a soldier had spoken extensively with members of his unit about his desire to kill an Iraqi. “The soldier,” the report states, “later shot and killed an Iraqi detainee who was [in plastic handcuffs] and may have tripped while walking away from the soldier.”
Such instances, Mikolashek concluded, were generally the result of poor unit discipline or failures by leaders to adequately keep watch over their soldiers. Of the 94 abuse cases, nearly half of the incidents occurred at the point of capture, when “soldiers have the least amount of control of the environment.”
During a hastily convened hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, some Republicans seized on the report’s conclusions as proof that the abuses were limited to a tiny percentage of U.S. military personnel at the bottom of the chain of command.
“This senator never doubted for a minute, and said so repeatedly at home and here, that no senior leader in the United States Army or in the government in an administration would tolerate inhumanity or cruelty to prisoners,” Sen. James Talent (R-Mo.) told Mikolashek during the hearing. “I never doubted it for a minute, and I am not surprised that that is what you concluded.”
But other members of the committee complained that the inspector general’s examination did not thoroughly investigate some of the more explosive allegations detailed in an earlier report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba on conditions at Abu Ghraib, as well as charges that top U.S. policymakers and senior commanders created an atmosphere that allowed the abuses to occur.
“I don’t think there was much attention paid to higher headquarters” in the report, said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). “Which begs the question: To what extent did higher headquarters influence the decision-making.”
During the hearing, Reed criticized Mikolashek for not investigating Taguba’s findings that “ghost detainees” were shuttled from prison to prison in Iraq to avoid oversight by the Red Cross.
“We did not go back and do a postmortem on that particular issue,” Mikolashek said.
“Well, General, I just think the premise of your report that there’s been no systemic problems is undercut by the fact that you didn’t look at some systematic problems. That was one,” Reed responded.
During a later session, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) continued the questioning about ghost detainees, asking the inspector general at the end of a pointed exchange: “And ... the question then springs to mind: What else didn’t you investigate? If we didn’t investigate a gross and egregious violation such as that, then I mean I’m curious what else you didn’t investigate.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) criticized the inspector general for the mild tone of his report. “Although I agree with the conclusion that the vast majority of our soldiers and other military personnel ... are serving with distinction, I do think it is a mistake to refer to the Abu Ghraib prison abuses merely as regrettable,” she said. “I think that sends the wrong message.”
During the hearing, Mikolashek said it was inappropriate for his team to delve too deeply into the abuses at Abu Ghraib because a separate criminal investigation into the incidents at the notorious Iraqi prison was already underway.
The hearing was called by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the committee chairman, who has pledged to hold more sessions on the prisoner abuse scandal in September. With senators due to leave today for summer recess and the Sept. 11 commission report dominating the capital’s attention, Warner decided Wednesday evening to convene the hearing -- elevating the attention given a report that might otherwise have been eclipsed by other news.
At the same time, the near-empty committee chamber had little of the charged atmosphere of past hearings on the detainee abuse issue, when the committee called top officials such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. John Abizaid, who heads the U.S. Central Command, to testify. Few Republicans attended Thursday’s hearing, although Warner explained that was probably due to a simultaneous Senate briefing on the Sept. 11 report.
In the Army report, the inspector general found that the roles and responsibilities of military intelligence and military police in Iraq and Afghanistan were not clearly specified. He also concluded that military intelligence units did not have sufficient interrogators and interpreters to conduct “timely detainee screenings and interrogations in the current operating environment, resulting in a backlog of interrogations and the potential loss of intelligence.”
While acknowledging the problems detailed in the report, senior Army officials raised concerns that the multiple investigations into detainee abuse might make U.S. troops in the field more tentative about using legal means to extract intelligence from hostile prisoners.
“We’ve got to be darn sure that we are not overreacting in a way that is removing lawful tools or setting conditions that would cause people to be hesitant and to second-guess,” the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told the committee.
Among its recommendations, the report says commanders should “continue to stress the importance of humane treatment of detainees.”