Senators asked the military officials why months passed before they personally learned of reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) documenting instances of prison abuse.
Lieutenant General Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq, said it was two months before he learned of an ICRC report submitted to his command on 6 November 2003. That report was the earliest evidence of abuses committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad.
A broader ICRC report was submitted in February 2004. Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, said he had not learned of the report until May and conceded that internal communication on the issue was seriously flawed.
"We have a real problem with ICRC reports and the way that they're handled and the way that they move up and down the chain of command,” he said. “ For example, the February report of '04, I first read in May. I won't make any excuses for it, Senator. I'll just say that we don't all see them. Sometimes it works at a lower level. Sometimes commanders at the lowest level get the report," Abizaid said.
The hearing came as a U.S. military court in Baghdad yesterday handed down a one-year jail sentence to the first American soldier to be tried over the Abu Ghurayb prisoner abuse scandal.
The court sentenced Jeremy Sivits -- a noncommissioned soldier in the U.S. military police -- to one year of confinement and ordered him discharged from the military for ill conduct. Sivits was found guilty of maltreating detainees and of dereliction of duty for failing to protect prisoners from abuse.
Even as Abizaid conceded errors in the Army's handling of the ICRC reports, he stressed that incidents like those at Abu Ghurayb were isolated events.
Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia) pressed Abizaid on the claim, citing the ICRC reports and suggesting that abuse of Iraqi detainees was more widespread than the general was willing to admit.
"General Abizaid, the Red Cross has alleged a pattern of abuse at detention centers in Iraq. How can you explain -- with all due respect -- how can you explain the culture of abuse that was allowed to develop in a prison system under your ultimate command?" Byrd asked.
Abizaid rejected Byrd's characterization. "I don't believe that culture of abuse existed in my command, and I don't believe that based on what my I.G. [inspector general] told me, and what the Department of the Army I.G. told me."
But Abizaid did acknowledge other procedural problems that might have contributed to the abuse of prisoners. He cited "systemic problems" at Abu Ghurayb, including standards of interrogation and confusion over whether military intelligence officials or the military police were ultimately responsible for the handling of detainees.
Blame for the Abu Ghurayb scandal has largely fallen on the military police, although commanders in a military intelligence brigade have also been implicated.
Some officials claim intelligence officers were given complete authority over Abu Ghurayb, including the activities of the military police, or MPs. Other military officials say intelligence officers limited their authority to questioning the prisoners -- not monitoring their treatment at other times.
Abizaid commented on the confusion, saying: "This is a doctrinal problem of understanding -- [what] do the MPs do, what do the military intelligence guys do, how do they come together in the right way? And this doctrinal issue has got to be fixed if we're ever going to get our intelligence right to fight this war and beat this enemy."
Byrd also asked about what are known as "interrogation rules of engagement," an outline of exactly how soldiers may -- and may not -- act in dealing with detainees.
The senator asked Abizaid whether the general's civilian superiors in the Defense Department approved the rules regarding the questioning of prisoners.
He put the question first to Sanchez, who issued the one-page directive last fall -- shortly before the Abu Ghurayb abuse took place. Sanchez replied that, as far as he knew, the rules did not have to be approved by Washington.
Abizaid then said both he and Sanchez have sufficient experience and authority to develop such rules of engagement on their own. Both generals stressed the interrogation guidelines did not sanction abuse or torture.
Sanchez said his office is taking measures to address the scandal appropriately.
"As a senior commander in Iraq, I accept responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghurayb, and I accept as a solemn obligation the responsibility to ensure that it does not happen again. We have already initiated courts-martial in seven cases, and there may very well be more prosecutions," Sanchez said.
Both Sanchez and Abizaid said their investigations will spare no one who might be responsible, regardless of rank.