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The chain of command under fire

Senators are probing how high in the chain of command responsibility lies for alleged prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2004

From the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the question of military accountability has been a difficult one. Does it end with the lieutenant leading the platoon, the lieutenant colonel in charge of a battalion, or the commander in chief in the White House?

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When the nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville crashed into the fishing trawler Ehime Maru three years ago, killing nine Japanese crewmen, teachers, and high school students, there was little doubt who was responsible: US Navy Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the boat's captain. He took responsibility and left the service in disgrace, ending a promising Naval Academy graduate's career.

Few episodes involving military mistakes, bad judgment, or wrongdoing are that clear-cut. Responsibility runs up and down the chain of command, from the lowliest private in fatigues to senior civilians at the Pentagon. It is based on two centuries of US military history and an increasingly complex notion of war.

It can depend on how hands-on a uniformed officer (or the secretary of Defense) is. And it frequently involves moral and ethical decisions not covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, international law, or written doctrine.

"In a formal sense, a commander is responsible for everything members of his command do or fail to do in connection with official duties and orders, explicit and inferred," says Dan Smith, a retired Army colonel now a senior fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington. "In a realistic sense, as one moves up the chain of command to larger and larger formations ... the emphasis is less on direct specific knowledge of what individuals at the lowest level might do or not do and more on the climate or tone the commander sets for his subordinates."

In testimony this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, whose report detailed the abuses at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, was clear on what he saw as the prime cause: "Failure in leadership from the brigade commander [Brig. Gen. Janice Karpinski] on down, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever, and no supervision."

Moreover, while the military police were under General Karpinski's control, orders placed a military intelligence officer in charge of the facility - highlighting the priority placed on extracting information from detainees. Taguba said this created a confusing situation that was contrary to Army doctrine. Nonetheless, he found that Karpinski retained overall responsibility for the MPs, several of whom now face court-martial proceedings.

But did responsibility go higher than that, senators wanted to know? That is far more difficult to determine, particularly in a time of war and in a contentious political season.

Some observers say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's aggressive management style must be taken into account."If the civilians are going to run the Defense Department the way that this particular Defense Department is run, then they can't divorce themselves from the military chain of command when something like this happens," says Charles Peña, a defense expert at the Cato Institute in Washington.

Such concerns extend to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who (along with Secretary Rumsfeld) has been criticized for not moving quickly to deal with well-documented abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. "On the battlefield, Myers' and Rumsfeld's errors would be called a lack of situational awareness - a failure that amounts to professional negligence," the Army Times, a civilian-published military trade publication, chided this week.