What a shock!

The Pentagon high command clears the Pentagon high command of any wrongdoing in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

By James P. Pinkerton
Published August 27, 2004 7:09PM (EDT)

Whaddya know. Two investigations, both spawned by the Pentagon, have cleared the Pentagon in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Cleared the higher-ups, at least. The lower-downs are on their own, fodder for the judicial and reportorial cannons. A shocking, shocking turn of events -- although perhaps not as shocking as a third investigation, in which a defense official who boasted about snapping a picture of Satan has been cleared for further duty.

On Tuesday, the Schlesinger commission, consisting of four establishment stalwarts handpicked by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, issued its findings on the abuse at Abu Ghraib: "There was direct responsibility for those activities on the part of the commanders on the scene up to the brigade level," declared commission chairman James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary. "There was indirect responsibility at higher levels."

Nobody except the inordinately conscience-stricken has ever left his or her job because of "indirect responsibility." And afflicted introspection is not exactly Rumsfeld's trademark. For his part, Schlesinger was indignant at the thought that Rummy might have to go. After all, the two men have been colleagues since the Nixon administration; Rumsfeld succeeded Schlesinger as Gerald Ford's defense secretary in 1975.

And then on Wednesday came another report from the bosom of the Pentagon, by Army Maj. Gen. George Fay and Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones, which found that 27 military personnel and civilian contractors were potentially culpable in abuse charges. And where did this alleged abusive behavior come from? Why, from their own 27 bad brains, of course. "The primary causes are misconduct (ranging from inhumane to sadistic) by a small group of morally corrupt soldiers and civilians, [and] a lack of discipline on the part of the leaders and soldiers," wrote Fay and Jones. And oh, by the way, stuck on at the end, "a failure or lack of leadership." That's at least a more sober and earnest conclusion than was provided by Schlesinger, who summed up Abu Ghraib as "animal house." So, in other words, the pithiest sound bite from either report conjures up images of John Belushi drinking too much beer and smashing a guitar.

The bottom line is that Rumsfeld has taken a hit and walks away. "Rumsfeld's War Plan Shares the Blame" was the headline atop a tough-minded analysis piece in the Washington Post, but Bush has made it clear that no amount of bad press (unless it's really a lot) will ever break up his iron guard of war viziers. A bit lower down, on the other hand, many officers -- starting with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former top commander in Iraq -- will now find their careers capped out. That's a loss to Republican politicos who might have hoped to turn Sanchez into the Hispanic equivalent of Secretary of State Colin Powell, but as everyone knows, political war is hell.

Further down, some colonels and majors and the like will find themselves involuntarily retired. And at the bottom of the Great Chain of Command, some sergeants and privates will end up in prison. And so order will be returned to the Pentagonshire, with each getting justice according to his or her station.

Of the two Abu Ghraib-related reports, the Schlesinger report delves more broadly into policy matters. And the policy, of course, is to get the Bush administration off the hook. Schlesinger & Co. buy in to the White House's relentlessly ahistorical argument that 9/11 "changed everything." As the report reads, "With the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the President, the Congress, and the American people recognized that we were at war with a different kind of enemy."

The first point to make in response is that every American war has been fought against a different kind of enemy, from the redcoats to the Comanches to the kamikazes. And the second is to note the blithe presumption that all 300 million of us bought in to the idea that we were in a "new kind of warfare" against a "unique brand of ideological extremists," so it made sense that the old rules had to be revised, if not junked.

The Schlesingerians even seek to turn the tables on the venerable International Committee of the Red Cross. All the ICRC ever did, before criticizing what happened at Abu Ghraib, was win three Nobel Peace Prizes. But in the spirit of campaign-style rapid response, any critic must be countered. So while the report counsels the Defense Department to "continue to foster its operational relationship" with the ICRC, it then takes its shot: "The Panel believes the ICRC, no less than the Defense Department, needs to adapt itself to the new realities of conflict which are far different than the Western European environment from which the ICRC's interpretation of [the] Geneva Conventions was drawn." In other words, we screwed up, but why don't you scolds confess to screwing up, too?

What's most interesting about the Schlesinger report is its profound lack of interest in the origin of this criminal and counterproductive behavior. As Talleyrand might have said, in surveying the impact of Abu Ghraib, it's worse than a crime -- it's a blunder.

Where did the blundering begin? Even the Schlesinger commission has to admit that it started from the top: "On February 7, 2002, the President issued a memorandum asserting that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to either al-Qaeda, nor to the Taliban." One needn't be too much of a student of bureaucratic behavior to understand that when the commander in chief opens a loophole, underlings can -- and may feel compelled to -- open it even farther.

The commission notes that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller was sent to Iraq to bring "strong command-wide interrogation policies" to that nascent democracy. And Brig. Gen. Janis Fallpersonski -- oops, make that Karpinski -- who commanded the Abu Ghraib prison, recalls Miller telling her last year that he had been sent by the secretary of defense to "Gitmo-ize" her facility -- that is, establish Guantánamo-style techniques. The chances that the one-star Karpinski would get in the way of the two-star Miller were small to begin with, but if Miller had Rumsfeld's writ, she would be hard-pressed to be more than a wallflower inside her own walls.

Relying heavily on the passive voice, so as to better insulate the instigators, the Schlesinger report relates that "with the active insurgency in Iraq, pressure was placed on the interrogators to produce 'actionable intelligence.'" And then, a bit later, amid the safety of anonymity, the report allows, "Senior officials expressed, forcibly at times, their need for better intelligence."

And then this: "In November 2003, a senior member of the National Security Council Staff visited Abu Ghraib, leading some personnel at the facility to conclude, perhaps incorrectly, that even the White House was interested in the intelligence gleaned from their interrogation reports." What part of such a symbolism-soaked visit is to be doubted as interest from the White House?

With all this pressure coming down, are we really so sure that the misdeeds of guards and interrogators were, as the report put it, "purposeless sadism"? Is there no chance that any of it was trickle-down intensity -- or maybe even, denials notwithstanding, the result of direct orders from officers who expressed the need for better intelligence, "forcibly at times"?

It's possible that some additional uncovering of the Abu Ghraib scandal will come from the military trials going on in Mannheim, Germany -- defense lawyers are trying to call Rumsfeld as a witness -- but don't hold your breath. Go see "Breaker Morant" instead.

Indeed, inside the Pentagon, the people in the military intelligence cone might be in for a reward in the form of a bigger budget. Who says throwing money at problems is a bad idea?

The top "milint" man is Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Steve Cambone, a longtime Rumsfeldite. Cambone testified earlier this year on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers didn't so much as nick him. And now, with two more fat documents as body armor, he's snug in Rummy's rug.

Finally, it's worth remembering Cambone's sidekick, the colorfully crazy Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, deputy undersecretary for intelligence. Boykin caused a stir last year when it was reported that he had been touring around Christian churches, declaring that the United States was, in fact, engaged in a religious war -- which is to say that Boykin embraced, albeit from the opposite side, the apocalyptic analysis of Osama bin Laden. He said the United States was fighting terrorism "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan."

Lest anyone think that I am exaggerating, here's a 2003 report on Boykin's utterances:

"A year ago last June, a two-star Army general stood in the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., and identified the source of all America's problems.

"Pointing to a dark shadow on several photographs he shot of Mogadishu's skyline from a helicopter shortly after 18 Americans were killed in the 'Black Hawk Down' debacle, Army Lt. Gen. William 'Jerry' Boykin assured the congregation that, indeed, they were witnessing the faint outline of Satan hovering over Somalia.

"Gen. Boykin isn't one to resort to metaphors when speaking of the battle between good and evil. 'It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy,' he said, indicting the devil for the murder of 18 American soldiers."

Quoted in a different article, Boykin further describes the dark shadow in the photos: "Whether you understand it or not, it is a demonic spirit over the city of Mogadishu. Ladies and gentlemen, that's not a fake, that's not a farce."

Let's be as blunt as we can. The No. 2 man in the Pentagon's intelligence operation sees Satan in photographs. How different is that from seeing white unicorns? Or pink elephants? Or little green men? If we put hallucinators in charge, is it any wonder that we've had trouble with our intelligence?

Those news reports about Boykin caused a stir, but not enough of one. Last November, the conservative National Review opined, "It is hardly good for the morale of the troops to understand that their commander is a wacko who goes around photographing Satan zooming overhead. General Boykin is manifestly insubordinate, and should be sacked. Yesterday." But Boykin had some fans in the right places, too. Writing in the Washington Times last fall, Tony Blankley, the editorial page editor, was inspired to write, "I thank God that we have such a man as General Boykin in our midst."

At the insistence of Congress and other forces of enlightenment, the Pentagon launched an investigation of Boykin's crusading. But at the insistence of the Pentagon (when the story broke, Rumsfeld announced, preemptively, that Boykin had an "outstanding record"), the investigation concluded with a wrist slap. Boykin, it said, shouldn't have been wearing his uniform when he encouraged the Christian soldiers onward. But as the Washington Post reported, senior defense officials considered the findings to be a "complete exoneration."

So Boykin is still on the job, free to further foment the clash of civilizations.

And the rest of us are left to wonder what comes next. If our intelligence services find room at the top for zealots who create more enemies than they negate -- and who hallucinate even more foes than that -- then papery reports seem almost useless. Because after the token courts-martial, the light letters of reprimand and the occasional grudging mea culpa, the real problem America confronts is not its painful past but a fiery future.

James P. Pinkerton

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Abu Ghraib Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon