Command in Chains… The big unanswered question about Abu Ghraib prison scandal has been: to what degree, if any, do Bush administration policymakers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particular, bear responsibility? Obviously, nobody at the top ordered this kind of sick (and militarily counterproductive) abuse, or wanted it to happen. But did their decisions to some extent ?set the conditions? for it?

The most high-profile investigative effort to find an answer has been conducted by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, which released its final report yesterday. If front pages are verdicts, then the Bush administration can?t be too happy. ?A Trail Leads to Rumsfeld,? reads the headline of the analysis piece in The New York Times. ?Rumsfeld?s War Plan Shares the Blame? reads the equivalent piece in The Washington Post. Still, in reading the coverage, I?m a bit confused.

From what I can tell, Rumsfeld?s leadership contributed to the problem in three ways. First was his best-case-scenario planning, or lack of planning, for what might happen after Saddam?s regime fell. The Pentagon leadership, noted Schlesinger, ?did look at history books. Unfortunately, it was the wrong history.?

Second, and most disastrously, was Rumsfeld?s decision to put too few troops in Iraq, and to shut down anyone who questioned that decision. The Times notes that the report ?sidestepped? the broader question of overall troop numbers, instead focusing on the short staffing of MPs. As the Post puts it:

?At one point, the report noted, there were 495 detention personnel in Iraq, compared with an authorized level of 1,400. The ratio of military police to detainees at Abu Ghraib was as high as 1 to about 75, the report said, compared with a ratio of 1 to 1 at Guantanamo Bay.?

The Post elsewhere explains:

?The pervasive lack of troops, especially those with specialized skills, had a cascading effect that helped lead to the abuse, the report said. As the insurgency took off, frontline Army units, lacking interpreters, took to rounding up “any and all suspicious-looking persons — all too often including women and children,” it said. This indiscriminate approach resulted in a “flood” of detainees at Abu Ghraib that inundated demoralized and fatigued interrogators, it continued.”

Third was Rumsfeld?s efforts to parse or otherwise get around legal constrains on how prisoners at Guantanamo could be interrogated, and his decision to apply some of those looser standards to Iraq. Reads the report:

?It is important to note that techniques effective under carefully controlled conditions at Guantanamo became far more problematic when they migrated and were not adequately safeguarded.?

This third issue is the one I?m most curious about. On the one hand, it seems just like the Bush administration to thumb its nose at international constraints that have served us well for years, like the Geneva Convention, and expect that doing so won?t have major negative repercussions. On the other hand, I?m sure that anyone in Runsfeld?s shoes, faced with terrorists who don?t play by the normal rules of war, and an insurgency in Iraq where commanders needed lots of intelligence fast, might have had good reason to rethink old policies. It is for questions like these that God invented Phil Carter.

Update: It should be noted that the panel did not believe that Rumsfeld should resign or be fired for what happened at Abu Ghraib, that you can’t judge a leader by just one disaster on his watch. I agree. He should resign or be fired for screwing up the entire war.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.