Abu Ghraib picture begins to fill in

Reports due out this week and two court cases reveal more about who's to blame for prison scandal and how high it goes.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was partly caused by chaos and inattention.

Iraqi insurgents created the chaos, which occupied the US command structure's time - leading to inattention about the methods used by guards and interrogators desperate to wring intelligence from detainees under their control.

Those, at least, are preliminary conclusions drawn from a series of US investigations into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Reports from two such probes are due to be released this week.

Legal proceedings against low-level soldiers charged in the case are also moving ahead, revealing more bits of data about a scandal that rocked the world when pictures of some of the sordid practices at Abu Ghraib were published earlier this year.

A key point all this action may address: How high does responsibility for abuses go?

"The key now will be ... to look back and see what sort of atmosphere allowed this to happen. It's hard to believe it was just a few rotten apples," says Hurst Hannum, an international law professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib became public this past April, when several news organizations published photos of soldiers posing with Iraqi prisoners who had been forced into embarrassing or painful positions, sometimes adjacent to laughing US military personnel.

Of US personnel charged with wrongdoing to this point, one - Spc. Jeremy Sivits of the 372nd Military Police Company - has pleaded guilty and been sentenced to a year in prison.

But six others soldiers from the 372nd have contested similar charges. Of those, four face preliminary hearings at US military bases in Germany this week.

In these cases, defense lawyers argue that their low-level clients were simply following orders to soften up inmates for interrogation.

One key suspect, Spc. Charles Graner, told investigators searching his quarters this spring that he feared he would be made a scapegoat, according to testimony at his hearing on Monday.

But a military judge still ruled that computer discs and other evidence seized from Spc. Graner are admissible.

Against this background, the members of a panel appointed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to investigate Pentagon detention operations are scheduled to deliver their final report Tuesday morning.

This panel, headed by former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, was charged with looking at how high up the chain of command responsiblity for abuse went.

A second report due to be finished this week, conducted by an Army group headed by Maj. Gen. George Fay, will reportedly blame at least two dozen military servicemembers and five civilian contractors for committing Abu Ghraib abuses. It will not charge military leaders, sources say, but it will recommend that commanders be faulted for inadequate supervision.

"These are comprehensive reports," says a Pentagon official who requested anonymity. "These are further reflections of the commitment to find out the complete story of Abu Ghraib and to take a good hard look at detention operations as a whole."

Though the reports may not assign personal culpability to higher-ranking members of the military, it is still possible that more service members, including officers, will face charges.

Col. Thomas Pappas, the officer in charge of military intelligence at the Abu Ghraib prison, exercised his Fifth Amendment rights and did not testify for the Army investigation run by General Fay, for instance.

The role that intelligence personnel played in setting rules and urging the softening up of prisoners is one of the key issues determining culpability at Abu Ghraib.

Without addressing the case of Colonel Pappas specifically, one military expert says it's possible there are more prosecutorial shoes to drop.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see senior officials charged under Article 92, dereliction of duty," says Mary Hall, a former Navy judge and appeals attorney in the Washington area.

Another key issue is the role of Reserve personnel. An Army Reserve general who was in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison and who was relieved of command and admonished in January has continued to assert that her soldiers were ill-trained to handle the role of jailers and completely unprepared to face the level of danger caused by insurgent attacks.

To this point, the whole affair has shown both the worst and best sides of the US involvement in Iraq, according to one expert.

The worst aspects are obvious - the abuses themselves. The pictures of laughing Americans manipulating Iraqis for their apparent amusement have done incalculable damage to US prestige in Muslim countries, if not the world at large.

The good aspects, on the other hand, are the investigations themselves. Such quick self-criticism isn't common in much of the rest of the world, notes Mr. Hannum of the Fletcher School.

The British, for example, have had a less-than-stellar record of investigating and punishing abuses carried out by British personnel in Northern Ireland.

That said, the US may still have some way to go before the mess is cleaned up.

"It will be a challenge to the US to try to sell these investigations to the Iraqi people as well as the American people as being an appropriate response," says Hannum.

And its possible that the Abu Ghraib abuses are simply the tip of a larger problem. The US is still looking at alleged abuses that occurred in Afghanistan, as well as the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Four suspected Al Qaeda terrorists face military tribunals this week at Guantanamo. Initial hearings begin Tuesday.

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