An official report on the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal yesterday blamed a failure of leadership at the Pentagon for negligence over prison conditions and confusion over interrogation rules which led to "Animal House" sadism in the Iraqi jail. The report, by a four-member panel of Pentagon advisers, did not pin direct responsibility on the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, by name, nor did it find any top officials legally culpable. The worst abuse at Abu Ghraib, it said, was carried out by night shift guards. But the report represented an implicit indictment of the defence secretary's management of the defence department.
"We believe there is institutional and personal responsibility right up the chain of command as far as Washington is concerned," James Schlesinger, a former defence secretary who chaired the panel, told reporters yesterday.
Mr Rumsfeld issued a non-committal response last night. "The panel has provided important information and recommendations that will be of assistance in our ongoing efforts to improve detention operations," he said in a statement.
"The defence department has an obligation to evaluate what happened and to make appropriate changes. The independent panel's contributions will be of great help to us."
For the first time since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in March, the Schlesinger report officially made a connection between the actions or omissions of the Bush administration and the brutal treatment of prisoners in US military prisons, and could deepen the damage already done by the affair to the president's re-election effort.
"I think this is going to be more of a problem than they anticipated when they appointed this panel," said Professor Scott Silliman, an expert on military law at Duke University in North Carolina.
The Schlesinger report depicts the torture scandal as one of the unseen circumstances of poor planning by the Pentagon leadership.
"In Iraq, there was not only a failure to plan for a major insurgency, but also to adapt to the insurgency that followed after major combat operations," the report found, adding that the war plan assumed a period of "relatively benign stability" would precede a transfer of power to the new Iraqi authorities.
More damning details of the use of torture against Iraqi prisoners are expected to surface today, with the results of a separate army investigation into the role of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib.
Leaks from that report, published in the Washington Post yesterday, included a finding that some guards used dogs to terrify prisoners as young as 15, in a sadistic game aimed at making their victims wet themselves in fear. The report will also mention evidence that at least one Iraqi male detainee was raped.
Mr Schlesinger said yesterday that "chaos" reigned at Abu Ghraib.He said there was "sadism on the nightshift" and added, "It was a kind of Animal House on the night shift ," in a reference to the 1978 film which portrays the unsavoury antics of a bunch of hedonistic students.
"There is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities," the Schlesinger report found. But Mr Schlesinger said yesterday: "There was indirect responsibility at higher levels, in that the weaknesses at Abu Ghraib were well known and corrective action could have been taken, and should have been taken."
The Schlesinger report said "confusing and inconsistent interrogation technique policies" issued by the Pentagon and the White House contributed to the belief among officers and soldiers at Abu Ghraib that they could use methods that had been allowed at Guantanamo Bay, but banned for use in Iraq.
The panel also found fault with America's top generals in the joint chiefs of staff, for failing to make sufficient manpower and resources available at Abu Ghraib prison and the rest of a huge network of military jails that has sprung up around the world.
The former US force commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, was blamed in the report. But he, too, escaped legal responsibility, and the panel did not recommend a reprimand.
Until today, only seven military police guards have been charged for the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and human rights groups said the Schlesinger report was a whitewash of the Bush administration's responsibility.
Administration critics say US leaders created the conditions for the abuse by insisting suspected terrorists did not merit treatment under Geneva convention rules.
Today's army report into the role of military intelligence, by Major General George Fay, is expected to recommend proceedings against soldiers who are not already among the seven facing trial, and against civilian contractors who worked at Abu Ghraib.