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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 01:05 GMT 02:05 UK
Casting Abu Ghraib's heroes and villains

By Nick Childs
BBC Pentagon correspondent

This panel report could reignite the debate over Abu Ghraib.

Schlesinger (right) and Horner (left)
The panel concluded military personnel were mostly to blame

It lays blame at different levels in different ways.

For the first time in an official probe into the affair, this report points a finger of criticism at the highest levels of the Pentagon, both civilian and military.

But it does not call for top-level resignations and it says the main direct blame for the abuses captured on camera there lies with the soldiers involved and their local commanders.

The four-member panel was appointed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the prisoner abuse scandal first broke, when he was under enormous public pressure.

It was meant to provide an overview of what went wrong, and what was done about it.

So it had a much wider mandate than other official investigations.

And while its members had close associations with the military establishment, they also all had reputations for speaking their minds.

'Freelance sadism'

Their report is hard-hitting in different ways and at different levels.

Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse
The images of US soldiers mistreating detainees caused a storm

"There was chaos at Abu Ghraib," according to James Schlesinger, the chairman.

He said the abuses captured on camera there were freelance activities by the soldiers involved. He accused them of sadism.

And the report says direct responsibility for those abuses lies with them and their local commanders.

But, for the first time in an official probe into the scandal, this report does point a finger of criticism at the highest levels of the Pentagon.

It says civilian and military leaders were indirectly responsible for failures of oversight, confused policy, and a lack of resources at the prison.

Problems at the prison "were well known" within the military, Mr Schlesinger said, and corrective actions "could have been taken and should have been taken".

'Heroic' Rumsfeld

But the panel found that the uniformed military - commanders and staff officers in the field and in Washington - bore more responsibility than the Pentagon's civilian leaders for not preventing the abuses.

Copies of the report
The report's release is unlikely to silence the debate over Abu Ghraib

Still, according to Mr Schlesinger, it would be wrong for the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to resign.

"His resignation would be a boon to all of America's enemies," James Schlesinger said.

Indeed, the panel praised Donald Rumsfeld's response to the prisoner abuse scandal.

One of the panel members, retired air force General Charles "Chuck" Horner, said he was a hero in this affair.

That will not be how a lot of people will see it.

Enduring debate

And the question remains of where will the buck actually stop?

That question may be answered in part by a new US Army report that is about to be released, focusing in large part on the role of military intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib.

It could identify at least two dozen new personnel as directly responsible for the abuse.

Human rights groups are already saying the latest report does not go far enough, particularly on the policy of interrogations of detainees.

And the Bush administration's Democratic opponents could well seize on the report as further ammunition for their case that there was not proper planning for the Iraq war.

It is all a reminder that the debate over Abu Ghraib still dogs the Bush administration and the Pentagon.


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