Washington, 11 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The official view in Washington is that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was the work of a relatively small number of low-ranking soldiers and does not reflect the work of the overall military.
U.S. President George W. Bush restated that view yesterday on a visit to the U.S. Defense Department near Washington: "I know how painful it is to see a small number dishonor the honorable cause in which so many are sacrificing. What took place in the Iraqi prison does not reflect the character of the more than 200,000 military personnel who have served in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
But many believe that the abusive behavior was not limited to the seven low-ranking soldiers who have been charged so far in the scandal. They say, at the very least, a climate that tolerated such abuse was also necessary -- and that climate could only have come from above.
"Since 9/11...[there seems] to have been a climate where the idea was that you could tolerate the abuse of prisoners on the grounds of expediency."
That's the view of Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for the Pentagon and State Department, who is a senior scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy-research center in Washington.
Cordesman has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq. He tells RFE/RL that he believes the abuse is attributable to what he calls a "climate of command" that encouraged harsh treatment of Iraqi prisoners. He says this climate stems from the anger still felt from the terror attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.
"It is, I think, apparent at many levels that the command failed to exercise proper authority," he said. "[This] may, at least indirectly, [have] encouraged what took place. There seems, since 9/11, to have been a climate where the idea was that you could tolerate the abuse of prisoners on the grounds of expediency."
Cordesman says such a climate could not have been fostered if the officers responsible for the Abu Ghurayb prison in Baghdad had given effective guidance to their subordinates and had not encouraged interrogation that included ill-treatment of prisoners in the quest for usable intelligence.
Cordesman says this attitude condoning abuse appears to be so pervasive that it may also be present in other U.S.-run detention facilities, such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. is still holding prisoners captured in the 2001 war in Afghanistan.
"It's not clear to me that Guantanamo was better than Abu Ghurayb, or that Afghanistan had clearer or better direction than what went on [in Iraq]."
Cordesman says, however, there is still no evidence that the scandal goes beyond the military officers operating in Iraq.
Reports of the abuse have led to calls in the U.S. and around the world for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They say Rumsfeld failed to take appropriate action when he first learned of the abuse several months ago -- and that as the top man at the Pentagon he is ultimately responsible for the behavior of U.S. soldiers.
Cordesman, for his part, defends Rumsfeld. He says it is too early to assign blame: "The problem is that we do not have an honest chain of evidence, and so it's easy to condemn [Rumsfeld] or [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers]. Exactly who is responsible is something you cannot assign without a very clear picture of who knew what at a given time. To push [all blame] up to the highest levels of authority in the Defense Department without understanding just how many burdens there are on those officials and how many tasks they have during a given day, is unfair."
The incidents of abuse appear to coincide with the growth last year of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. The abuse seems to have been an outgrowth of interrogation techniques designed to "soften up" Iraqi prisoners so that the U.S. military could learn more about the nature of the insurgency.
That may be true, but Cordesman says abusive interrogation techniques rarely succeed: "This [type of interrogation] never made any sense because you create new enemies, you create prison camps which train hard-core oppositionists, you create a structure of actions which means that the families and the people associated with the prisoners become your enemies."
And as much as Cordesman attributes responsibility for the abuse to senior officers, he has no sympathy for the lower-ranking guards who defend their actions by arguing that they were never trained in the rules of the Geneva Convention. He says every schoolchild knows the difference between right and wrong.