News analysis

U.S. Officers Seek Commander Accountability In Abu Ghraib Abuses

Elaine M. Grossman,
Inside The Pentagon
June 3, 2004

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A rising chorus of officers in each of the services is calling for commanders up and down the military chain to be held accountable for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq, officials tell Inside the Pentagon.

Many are concerned the reputation of U.S. service members around the globe already has been deeply harmed by photos depicting physical abuse, sexual humiliation and the use of unmuzzled German shepherds to frighten detainees at the U.S.-run facility outside Baghdad. Some say the abuse scandal rivals the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam in terms of the long-term toll it may take on global perceptions of U.S. foreign and defense policies.

But these officers also say they are no less troubled by the prospect of widespread damage inside the U.S. military. They say military discipline and accountability may be harmed if dereliction of duty—in this case, the duty of higher-ranking commanders to oversee assigned areas of responsibility—goes unpunished.

Seven Army military police have been accused of wrongdoing, but thus far no officers have been charged with crimes. Several aspects of the scandal remain under Pentagon investigation. The case is clouded by dispute over which chain of command was responsible for the cell block involved—one overseeing military police or another in charge of military intelligence.

In his report on the Abu Ghraib incidents, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba recommended reprimands and reassignments for several higher-ranking MP and military intelligence personnel. One of the senior leaders, Brig.
Gen. Janis Karpinski, was reassigned last month from her post as commander of the 800th MP Brigade, pending further investigation.

Taguba also found that two military intelligence officials were “either directly or indirectly responsible for abuses at Abu Ghraib”: 205th MI Brigade Commander Col. Thomas Pappas and Lt. Col. Steve Jordan, former director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center in Iraq.

An additional complication was the presence of military contractors and CIA agents at the prison who were allegedly involved in—or perhaps in some cases directed—prisoner abuses.

Even if the command chain was poorly arranged or understood, a credible and coherent investigation must be carried out in which military officers are held accountable for the abuses, many officers are saying. Even if field commanders never issued an order that led to the prison incidents—or even if they were unaware of the abuses—there almost certainly are officers who should be held accountable, officials say.

“Officers are trained [to understand that] it is our responsibility to know what is going on inside our platoons, inside our companies and inside our battalions,” one Army officer said this week.

Although many details remain unclear, “somewhere, at some level, an officer or officers were guilty by ignorance, complicity or direct involvement,” a senior military officer opined.

Whether the Abu Ghraib scandal extends little beyond the hands of seven undisciplined soldiers or reveals a deeper, more systemic problem in Army command leadership is under debate.

Army officers are educated from early on in their military careers that they are responsible for the physical and mental well-being of their troops, which includes providing clear lines of expected conduct, military officials say.

“But not everyone is the same kind of leader,” said one Army source, adding some officers are better than others at providing detailed oversight and attention to their soldiers.

“It’s that 0.1 percent that gives the officer corps a bad name,” said the officer.

“What these few bad apples did may reflect the darker side of American society—human nature, really,” one soldier in Iraq told ITP this week. “The vast majority of her children reflect daily, under fire, the very best we have to offer ourselves and the world.”

Others see warning signs of a deeper problem facing the Army.

“There are lots of symptoms of some sort of leadership vacuum being filled by woefully unprepared and undisciplined individuals who lack a warrior mentality,” one senior military officer told ITP this week.

The stakes could not be higher for identifying lapses in commanders’ judgment and holding those officers accountable, several officers said.

“We cannot take many Abu Ghraibs and retain our moral standing, ultimately the only standing that means anything,” said the senior officer. “I think that Abu Ghraib does sully the reputation of us all and undercuts the moral authority of our nation.”

Another senior military leader said last week the abuses constitute a stain on anyone who wears a U.S. military uniform, the same grim feeling of personal shame many service members recall after learning of the My Lai massacre.

Although the U.S. public and the world may understand the abuses were committed by a tiny handful and do not reflect the high caliber of training and conduct of the vast number of U.S. forces, the emotions stemming from the incident are intense for many officers—particularly those who have commanded troops.

Some are mortified by the notion of having even incidental association with soldiers who committed abuses, by virtue of the shared uniform, some officials say.

“I am embarrassed that we allowed that to happen,” said one Army officer, calling the abuses “really unnerving.”

“I don’t think it’s the general perception” that all U.S. service members are somehow culpable, “but it’s the way you feel,” Rear Adm. Don Guter, a former Navy judge advocate general, said in a May 30 interview. “I think it’s just human nature.”

“In the end, no one will hold us to a higher standard than we hold ourselves,” said the officer in Iraq.

The fervent emotions surrounding the incident may feed a thirst for punishment, particularly given that the world is watching the U.S. response. Whether the chain of command is held accountable may influence American credibility around the globe, officials say.

Officers deemed responsible for activities at the prison may, at a minimum, be charged with dereliction of duty, according to military law experts. Such a charge may be filed on the basis that “the accused knew or reasonably should have known” of duties that went unperformed, according to Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which governs the military. For Iraq commanders, such duties may have included remaining aware of conditions at the prison.

Reports last October by Red Cross officials who observed detainee mistreatment at the cellblock in which abuses occurred—Abu Ghraib’s “Tier 1A”—may strengthen the case that commanders were warned something was amiss. The Red Cross visited the prison around the time the MPs who now face charges—all members of the 372nd Military Police Company from Maryland—took control of the cellblock.

“The punishment of responsible officers . . . should be as severe as the law allows,” a senior officer said this week, adding culpability may either go up the command chain or stop at the field grade level within the prison. “The damage their leadership failure . . . has done is enormous, and the punishment must fit the crime.”

For any form of dereliction of duty, an officer’s “lack of knowledge” of a general order or regulation “does not constitute a defense,” according to the law.

Yet many in Congress and the public—and perhaps even many in uniform—may be surprised to learn the maximum punishment for an officer found guilty of a single count of “willful” or intentional dereliction of duties is just six months incarceration, a bad-conduct discharge and forfeiture of all pay, according to Title 10. If the dereliction is found to be the result of lesser “neglect” or “culpable inefficiency,” the penalty is reduced to three months in prison and a pay cut of two-thirds for that period.

“The [Bush] administration may want to take a look at increasing punishment for dereliction of duty,” Eugene Fidell, a former Coast Guard judge advocate, said this week.

Light sentences tend to “erode public confidence in the administration of justice,” he said. “And I think people are alert” to that concern. Fidell noted any such change in the law would likely come too late to apply to the Abu Ghraib case.

Yet one senior officer said culpable military personnel may face multiple counts of a variety of charges.

“A competent military prosecutor could almost certainly make a case that would result in very significant punishment of whoever is responsible” for the Abu Ghraib abuses, either directly or indirectly, the officer said this week.

As it stands, the greatest challenge in filing dereliction charges against officers up to senior levels of the command chain may be that only a few dozen military investigators are in Iraq. The Pentagon has not consolidated investigators into a single, coherent body—as the Navy created following the 1991 Tailhook assault scandal, Fidell notes.

Thus it may be difficult to attain what Fidell terms “holistic justice.” The severity of charges and sanctions may appropriately differ between the separate sectors of military police and military intelligence, but a lack of coherence across the cases could undercut public confidence by raising the specter of a double standard, he said.

“The dangers of a lack of uniformity are potentially grave,” Fidell said.

Military prosecutors understandably have begun with charges against the soldiers whose alleged conduct offers the strongest evidence of wrongdoing assembled to date, according to Fidell, now in private practice in Washington.

At the same time, the investigations are left largely in the hands of young, low-ranking officers who may not be inclined to go after senior commanders, Fidell said.

“It may be a little unrealistic [to think] that a junior officer will turn himself into Ken Starr,” said Fidell, referring to the independent counsel who investigated the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky matters during the Clinton administration.

Some military officers say it is particularly critical, though, to prosecute officers in the Abu Ghraib case in light of the increasing trend, over the past decade or so, toward high-profile cases in which commanders’ errors in judgment have been criminalized.

Officers cite the court martial of an Air Force airborne control aircraft crew member following the accidental shootdown of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in northern Iraq in April 1994, among other examples.

Americans may have become inured to military criminal cases over the years to such an extent that the seriousness of any Abu Ghraib officer prosecutions could fade in the public consciousness, some officers worry.

The risk is that “all cases will seem to have the same magnitude,” a senior officer said.

“Lawyers—and their adversarial processes—are the answer only in a minority of cases,” said another senior officer, noting the Abu Ghraib abuses should be considered a rare but serious breakdown in command discipline rather than one in a string of bad judgment calls.

One Army officer said the entire chain of command related to the Abu Ghraib prison—to include non-commissioned officers—must be investigated for culpability.

“I’m not standing back looking for any one class of soldier to be held accountable,” said this source, noting officers are expected to “set the expectations, then it’s the NCOs who ensure the soldiers are held to that standard.”

“I’m looking for the Army to hold those responsible accountable,” the Army officer said.

—Elaine M. Grossman