Washington The blame for abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison lies mainly with the American soldiers who ran the notorious jail, but senior commanders and top-level Pentagon officials including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can be faulted for failed leadership and oversight, an independent commission said Tuesday.
"There was chaos at Abu Ghraib," said James R. Schlesinger, who headed the four-person commission appointed by Rumsfeld.
The Schlesinger commission report described the abuse as "acts of brutality and purposeless sadism" and said -- as have others who reviewed the case -- that the soldiers involved were not acting on approved orders or policies.
On the other hand, the report contradicts the Bush administration's assertion that the problem was limited to a few soldiers acting on their own. So far, seven military police soldiers have faced criminal charges; two dozen or more military intelligence soldiers may also be charged, but it appears increasingly unlikely that top-level commanders will be disciplined.
Remedies under way
No senior officials deserve to be punished, the Schlesinger commission members told a Pentagon news conference after briefing Rumsfeld. They said they believe the Pentagon is on a path to remedying the underlying causes of the abuse.
Schlesinger said soldiers who stacked naked Iraqi prisoners in pyramids, forced them into positions of sexual humiliation and confronted them with snarling guard dogs were renegades.
"It was a kind of 'Animal House' on the night shift," he said. Schlesinger was a secretary of defense for the Nixon and Ford administrations.
The Schlesinger commission was not asked to assign legal culpability; that is being done in Army investigations, including one, known as the Fay report, scheduled to be made public on Wednesday.
Discipline at the top
The Schlesinger panel, which reviewed the Fay report and other related investigations, said disciplinary action "may be forthcoming" against Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the 800th Military Police Brigade at Abu Ghraib; and Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which was assigned to Abu Ghraib last year.
Karpinski contends she was not alerted to abuses at Abu Ghraib until they were brought to the attention of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in January 2004.
The Schlesinger report aims significant blame at Sanchez, saying that while he was understandably focused on fighting a mounting Iraqi insurgency at the time of the abuses, he should have ensured that his staff dealt with Abu Ghraib's command and resource problems.
"Commanders are responsible for all their units do or fail to do, and should be held accountable for their action or inaction," the report said.
The report is one of several that have examined various aspects of the abuse scandal, which rocked the Bush administration and triggered calls by some in Congress for Rumsfeld to resign. Its findings are similar to that of other reviews, although it is the first to point blame at Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"There is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities," the report said. "Still, the abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline. There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels."
Rand Beers, national security adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said Tuesday, "This report makes clear that the failures at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere start at the top -- beginning with a failure to plan for the peace in Iraq, a failure to adequately train the troops and a failure to provide clear orders for interrogation."
No clear guide
The report said senior leaders did not establish clear guidelines on permissible techniques for interrogating various categories of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq.
Rumsfeld might have avoided confusion over interrogation policy in the months after Baghdad fell in April 2003 if he had a wider range of legal opinions and a more robust internal debate over detainee policies and operations in 2002, before the war started, the report said.
Harold Brown, another commission member who was President Carter's defense secretary, said various versions of permissible interrogation techniques flowed from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects are held, to wartime prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"That in turn led to confusion about what interrogation practices were authorized," he said.
Commission member Tillie Fowler, a former Republican congresswoman from Florida, said the Pentagon cannot escape blame.
"We found fundamental failures throughout all levels of command, from the soldiers on the ground to Central Command and to the Pentagon," she said. "These failures of leadership helped to set the conditions which allowed the abusive practices to take place."
Warning signs went unnoticed or were ignored, she said.
High-level commanders failed to shift resources to an understaffed and ill-trained prison detention unit once it became apparent the system was out of control, the report said.
Schlesinger said Rumsfeld's office could be faulted for inadequate supervision, but he strongly objected to the suggestion that Rumsfeld should step down from his post.
"His resignation would be a boon to all of America's enemies," Schlesinger said.