Accountability at Issue in Abuse of Prisoners

Times Staff Writer

The abuse of Iraqi prisoners sparked so much concern that President Bush was told about an investigation during the winter holidays, White House officials said Tuesday. Within months, the scandal damaged the military career of an Army Reserve general and several other officers.

Now, people at the Pentagon and across official Washington are asking how high the blame will reach.

With outrage growing over the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the military’s main prison in Iraq, accountability has become an overriding question.

Already, mid-level military officers implicated in the case are accusing higher-ups of attempting to shirk responsibility. On Capitol Hill, senior lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are crying foul for not being informed of the military’s investigation and are planning to launch one of their own.


Until Tuesday, the Pentagon’s top civilian and uniformed officials, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers, said they had not read an investigative report on the matter -- or been given copies of the graphic photographs that most of the nation has seen on television and in newspapers. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he had seen a summary and recommendations from the investigation. Bush has yet to read it.

But where responsibility settles will help determine the domestic political implication and, equally important, the impact of the scandal in Iraq and the Arab world.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that the civilian and military leadership of the Defense Department should be called before the committee to answer questions about the treatment of prisoners not only at facilities in Iraq, but at military prisons around the world.

“It is not clear at this point who should be held to account,” Byrd said. “No one has stepped forward to take responsibility for the conditions in Iraqi prisons. Instead, fingers are being pointed in every direction,” Byrd said in a statement. “With whom does this buck stop?”

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was not pleased with how the abuse allegations have been handled by the military, noting that a battalion commander received a letter of reprimand.

“He will be taken off the promotion list, but he can, apparently, still remain in the Army,” Warner said. “And I must say, speaking for myself, I find some concern in that level of punishment.”

As the scale of the abuse at Abu Ghraib and the broader deficiencies of management have come to light, questions go beyond who is to blame for the actions. Enraged Arabs and uncomfortable Americans alike have asked how those who should have known about the abuses are being punished -- and in some cases whether they will be punished at all.

Criminal charges have been filed against six relatively low-ranking military police officers who are Army reservists, according to people familiar with the charges. The six are accused of being directly involved in the abuses in a high-security cellblock at Abu Ghraib. As many as three of the six cases have been referred for military trial, and others are in various stages of preliminary hearings, officials said.

In addition to the criminal cases, six others -- all military police -- have been given letters of reprimand, which in the competitive ranks of the military usually preclude promotion.

The highest-ranking officer to be implicated is a brigadier -- or one-star -- general, Janis Karpinski. As commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, Karpinski was responsible for all military prisons in Iraq. She was reprimanded and removed from command.

The Army could have filed criminal charges against Karpinski for dereliction of duty, but commanders chose not to.

Although Karpinski was removed from her command, others who received letters of reprimand have not been. The Pentagon’s decision to hand out reprimands does not legally preclude the filing of criminal charges later, but it almost always does in practice.

“They chose administrative punishments. That means they are saying that this is basically a failure of management -- it’s not the same as criminal behavior, except among those who were actually humiliating and photographing those prisoners,” said Allen Weiner, a professor of international law and diplomacy at Stanford University law school.

“The question then becomes, is that appropriate? It’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to U.S. objectives in Iraq than this set of images,” Weiner said. “I would assume that you would want to pursue criminal prosecution at the highest level to try to counter that.”

As knowledge of the abuses grows, pressure on the military to move beyond routine punishment also grows.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the prison abuses “the single most damaging act to our interests in the region in the last decade,” and suggested that limiting punishment to those directly involved may not be sufficient.

“Accountability is essential,” Biden said. “So the question for me is what did Secretary Rumsfeld and others in the Pentagon know, when did they know it and what did they do about it? If the answers are unsatisfactory, resignations should be sought.”

Bush was told of the prison abuses as early as last winter, presumably because administration and military officials considered the episode serious and wide-reaching. Yet, it was not until photographs of the abuse appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes II” last week that the extent of the intimidation and sexual humiliation became clear. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Bush had not seen the photos before they were aired.

“This is not something you can bury on the back burner,” said Scott Silliman, a professor at Duke University School of Law and retired Air Force colonel. “My guess is that word has gone out from the third floor of the Pentagon [where Rumsfeld’s office is located] to say we want this thing thoroughly investigated now because we don’t want to be embarrassed again.”

But even as Rumsfeld and senior military officials pledge to move vigorously to bring those responsible to justice, military legal experts say that in terms of further criminal prosecution, the Pentagon’s hands may be tied.

Under international laws of war, if a superior military officer knew or should have known that his subordinates were committing war crimes and did nothing to stop them, then the superior officer is as guilty as the people who committed the crimes.

In the case of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Karpinski sat atop three levels of military command at the prison. At the bottom was the 372nd Military Police Company, whose six soldiers have been charged with the abuses, and in the middle was Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, commander of the 320th Military Police Battalion, of which the 372nd was a part. Phillabaum, like Karpinski, was relieved of command and reprimanded.

Times staff writers Richard Simon and Elizabeth Shogren in Washington and Peter Wallsten in Ohio contributed to this report.