Abu Ghraib prosecutions end low on chain of command
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was an international black eye for the United States. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a senior officer in Iraq when the abuse took place, went so far as to testify that it threatened the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
And yet, with the guilty finding this week against Army Pfc. Lynndie England, the 22-year-old reservist who posed with naked prisoners, the Army is apparently ready to close its criminal investigation of the abuse.
England joins eight other Army reservists who have been found guilty of prisoner abuse or have pleaded guilty to related charges, none above the rank of sergeant.
No officer in the regular Army or reserves and no government or civilian interrogator has faced criminal charges.
England, who became a symbol of abuse in pictures that showed her in uniform, smiling broadly while participating in the degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, may now become another kind of example. Her conviction shows that in today's army, at least as it relates to the abuse at Abu Ghraib, responsibility doesn't flow up the chain of command. Only the grunts are held responsible for misdeeds.
New accusations emerge
Even as England was being tried, new accusations of abuse that occurred months after Abu Ghraib were being brought to light by the Armed Services Committee.
Army Capt. Ian Fishback and two sergeants who served with the 82nd Airborne Division have described routine harsh treatment of Iraqi captives similar to that captured in the Abu Ghraib photographs. Fishback and the sergeants said Iraqis captured during the siege of Fallujah were kicked and beaten, their bones broken and skin and eyes doused with chemical irritants. In addition, some prisoners were forced to form human pyramids, while others were made to hold heavy water jugs with their arms outstretched.
In a lengthy chronology set down on his computer after he left Iraq in April 2004, Fishback said he tried unsuccessfully to get the Army to recognize it was skirting the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture. He further complained that officers were not being properly trained how to handle prisoners.
But he said he was rebuffed by his chain-of-command, and after 17 months approached Human Rights Watch, which helped place him in touch with the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a Sept. 16 letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Fishback outlined his concerns.
Amazingly, the hearing officer in England's trial has ruled that Gen. Kimmitt's testimony about the damaging fallout England's abuse had on operations in Iraq can be admitted during the penalty phase of her trial. But the defense was barred from calling Fishback to testify on the widespread nature of such abuse.
No pity for her
It's hard to feel sorry for England. The camera captured the banality of evil in her smiling face so perfectly. But it is equally hard to believe that such abuse was going on with no knowledge or encouragement by those up the chain of command.
It is easy to conclude that the Army, somehow, just doesn't get how damaging it is for the world to see America as a nation that doesn't hold its officers to account for the conduct of its troops.
Sen. McCain, a prisoner during the Vietnam War, has so little faith in the will of the administration and the Army to respond to the problem that he is preparing an amendment to a defense bill that will require the American military to live up to its international obligations under the Geneva Convention and "not engage in torture" of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war on terror is a different kind of war, but it needn't mean abandoning fundamental principles of human rights or the traditional position the United States has taken as a champion of human rights. As McCain says, "We've got to make it clear to the world that America doesn't [abuse prisoners]. It's not about prisoners. It's about us."
Stopping its Abu Ghraib prosecution with the sentencing of the hapless Pfc. England does not send a message that the United States is serious about stamping out prisoner abuse.