Reports into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse released this week indict not just the way detainees were handled, but the planning and execution of key aspects of the overall US military enterprise in Iraq.
The nation's leadership, from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on down, failed to anticipate the widespread Iraqi insurgency, according to the reports. The Pentagon failed to adapt quickly enough after the insurgency started. Top generals failed to realize how explosive the Abu Ghraib photos would be.
Mid-level officers who oversaw prisoners will probably lose their careers following the reports' revelations. Secretary Rumsfeld and other command authorities may face renewed questions about larger issues of preparation and responsibility.
"What this keeps coming back to is the fundamental fact of how many troops you needed," says a retired Army general who requested anonymity.
The Abu Ghraib abuses became public this April following publication of photos showing US guards inflicting humiliation and fear on Iraqi detainees. The images showed nude prisoners stacked in piles and otherwise degraded. Some depicted the use of US military dogs to threaten individual Iraqis.
The issue has returned to headlines this week due to several factors: In Germany, court proceedings against some of the lower-level soldiers charged with abuse have reached turning points, and in Washington, two panels charged with investigating Abu Ghraib have made their findings public.
The panels looked at different aspects of the problem. A four-member group headed by ex-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger examined the overall issue of who in the chain of command should be held responsible for what happened. An Army probe headed by Maj. Gen. George Fay looked at the narrower issue of whether military intelligence personnel contributed to a climate of abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Both panels found that sheer sadism and cruelty on the part of military police guards were a big part of the problem. At a press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Schlesinger referred to an "Animal House" atmosphere that he said pervaded the night shift at Abu Ghraib.
But both panels concurred on larger points: Lax oversight on the part of the chain of command allowed this atmosphere to develop and fester, and abuse wasn't limited to Abu Ghraib.
Of 66 substantiated cases of abuse, eight occurred at the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay, according to the Schlesinger panel report. Three occurred in Afghanistan, and 55 in Iraq.
"Only about one-third were related to interrogation, and two-thirds to other causes," said the Schlesinger report.
As to who was responsible for this mess, the reports lay different kinds of blame on different levels of command. The officers with direct oversight for Abu Ghraib personnel, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, and Lt. Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, were accused of "weak and ineffective leadership" by the Schlesinger panel, and probably face the end of their careers, if not serious charges. Further up, the reports also hit the commander of US-led forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, for not taking stronger action when he realized the extent of leadership problems at Abu Ghraib in November 2003.
Neither panel directly blamed Mr. Rumsfeld. Indeed, Schlesinger said on Tuesday that it would be "a boon for all America's enemies" if Rumsfeld was forced to resign.
But the details of the reports also reveal faults that may be directly attributable to the office of the secretary of Defense.
For one thing, beginning in late 2002 Rumsfeld's office issued a series of confusing edicts on what interrogation techniques were permissible for US forces. For another, the reports paint a picture of a US effort in Iraq woefully short of manpower and flat-footed in response to strategic changes - both issues that lead directly to Rumsfeld's fancy Pentagon E-ring office door.
"There was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to quickly and adequately adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations," says the Schlesinger report.
General Sanchez's Iraq headquarters, for instance, was hobbled by lack of manpower. At one point it had only 495 of its authorized 1,400 personnel. Meanwhile, Sanchez himself was forced to travel repeatedly to Washington for appearances before congressional committees.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld's continued insistence that military leaders scrap existing deployment plans in favor of faster and leaner operations exacerbated personnel shortages. The mobilization of the 800th Military Police Brigade was "chaotic," notes Schlesinger.
Unit deployment orders arrived piecemeal. Equipment and troops regularly arrived out of planned sequence. Improvisation was the order of the day.
"While some units overcame these difficulties, the 800th was among the lowest in priority and did not have the capability to overcome the shortfalls in encountered," says the Schlesinger report.
One stark statistic shows how undermanned Abu Ghraib was: There was one guard for every 75 prisoners. At the US detention center in Guantánamo Bay, by contrast, there was one guard for every one prisoner.
That ratio at Abu Ghraib "drives home just how bad the problem was," says Mary Hall, a retired Navy Judge Advocate General and a military appeals attorney.