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Path of Arrogance in Iraq

August 27, 2004

An independent panel that included two former secretaries of Defense and a separate investigating team led by two Army generals heaped yet more withering criticism this week on the Pentagon's handling of Iraq after the invasion. The findings dealt with the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, but they should be read as condemning more than just the sickening scenes of torture documented in widely seen photographs.

The independent team rejected the Bush administration's claim that the Abu Ghraib mistreatment was the work of a few rogue soldiers. The number of military police and military intelligence specialists who will be charged with criminal wrongdoing may be limited, but the panel traced some of the blame all the way to the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The arrogant "we know best" attitude of the Pentagon's civilian leadership demands condemnation. The halfhearted acceptance of responsibility that Rumsfeld offered in his testimony in May before the Senate and House armed services committees doesn't let him off the hook for failing to provide consistent guidelines on the treatment of prisoners. The independent panel's report, and another released Wednesday concluding that 41 intelligence officers, CIA officials, contractors, medics and military police officers either took part in the abuses or knew of them but did nothing to stop them, should force the resignation or firing of top officials, military or civilian. At least two top officers might be facing such sanctions -- Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who oversaw the military police at the prison, and Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who oversaw the military intelligence personnel, are expected to receive reprimands that could end their careers. That would be a good start.

Investigators need to address another aspect of conduct at Abu Ghraib. An article last week in Britain's leading medical journal, written by a University of Minnesota professor of medicine, cited government documents that he said showed military medical personnel violated medical ethics at Abu Ghraib. The article said some medical workers revived prisoners for further torture and falsified death certificates of prisoners who died during interrogation. The Pentagon strongly denied the charges, which recall abuses in Nazi Germany. Those claims warrant a separate investigation.

The independent panel's report offers common-sense recommendations for reform, understanding that operations in a war zone often are chaotic. More personnel, better training and increased emphasis on law and ethics can go far toward preventing similar abuses. As with so much else in postwar Iraq, more humility in the corridors of the Pentagon would be another antidote.

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