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Pentagon to Broaden Its Abuse Inquiry

A four-star general is expected to take over to allow the questioning of high-ranking officers.

June 11, 2004|John Hendren and Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Thursday that it would broaden the investigation of intelligence units involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, as part of an effort to focus such probes on the military hierarchy.

Defense Department officials said the inquiry would be restructured with high-ranking investigators to allow the questioning of top officers in Iraq. Intelligence interrogators were present during the questioning of the prisoners.

The shift comes amid criticism that Defense Department inquiries have looked only at the small number of low-ranking soldiers involved in the worst acts of wrongdoing, specifically at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Recent news reports say the abuse scandal was preceded by Bush administration legal and military assessments that would ease restrictions on the interrogation of prisoners.

Congressional investigators are trying to determine who authorized aggressive interrogation. Congressional hearings are looking at how high in the ranks of the Pentagon and administration the scandal might reach.

President Bush said Thursday that he did not recall seeing advisory memos that concluded he had the authority to set aside requirements of the Geneva Convention in ordering harsh questioning of prisoners.

"The authorization I issued ... was that anything we did would conform to U.S. law and would be consistent with international treaty obligations," Bush said at a news conference at the Group of 8 summit in Georgia. "That's the message I gave our people."

The Pentagon action is almost certain to delay a final report for weeks, if not longer, a senior Bush administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), whose panel is awaiting the Pentagon report, seemed willing to wait. "I strongly support any effort to get the appropriate level officer to conduct this critical investigation so that the department can get all the relevant facts," Warner said. "I indicated last week that the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the report at the earliest possible opportunity following its completion, and I maintain that view."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected soon to approve a request to appoint a four-star general to lead the investigation. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the three-star ground commander in Iraq, asked Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command who is directing the war, to recuse him as the officer reviewing the report. Abizaid passed the request on to Rumsfeld, according to published reports.

Some in the Pentagon speculated that the new investigator could be Gen. George W. Casey, the Army vice chief of staff who will soon replace Sanchez as Iraq's top commander. Casey has worked with Rumsfeld as director of the Joint Staff since January 2003 and has allies on Capitol Hill.

But one senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Casey was no more likely than any of the other four-star generals to head the revamped investigation. Another senior Defense official noted that Casey's new assignment in Iraq would put him in the chain of command, creating potential conflicts.

The new investigator would replace Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, the two-star general overseeing the investigation. Army policy does not allow an investigator to interview a superior officer.

Sanchez asked to be relieved of oversight to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. He issued an order Nov. 19 giving military intelligence officers "tactical control" of the cellblocks at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

His request for recusal came near the end of a process that began in January, prompting questions about why it took so long for the top ground commander in Iraq to take himself out of the chain of command in reviewing the abuse allegations.

"This is not the first thing on Sanchez's mind," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said. "The first thing on his mind is fighting a war."

The Pentagon investigation is one of 10 inquiries that have been disclosed since January, when a reservist tipped superiors that members of a military police battalion were abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib. One of the 10 investigations -- carried out by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger -- is largely a review of the other nine, while an 11th inquiry seeks the origins of the leak in April of an investigative report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba that brought wide attention to the abuse scandal.

Senior Pentagon and administration officials, including Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, are being called by defense attorneys as witnesses at court-martial proceedings against six reservists accused of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib. A seventh reservist has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the prosecution.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he doubted that Rumsfeld, Cheney or other high-ranking officials would be required to testify.

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