Americans are right to be horrified by the reports of abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. There is simply no excuse. The guilty should be exposed and punished. The Administration and the Congress must also root out the leadership and systemic failures that allowed this horror to happen.
According to Pentagon spokesmen, U.S. military policy was to treat the detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility outside Baghdad in the same manner as enemy prisoners of war. That means they should have been accorded the rights and protections granted under the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which precludes physical and mental torture, any form of coercion, threats, insults, or disadvantageous treatment. For an American soldier, there are few crimes more shameful than breeching the standards of conduct established by the laws of war.
The President was right to denounce the abhorrent acts at Abu Ghraib and apologize "for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families." Likewise he was right to remind the world that neither the American people nor its armed forces would knowingly sanction such behavior.
"Just following orders," if indeed the investigation uncovers that illegal orders were given, is no excuse. Those who follow illegal orders are as guilty as those that gave them. Also culpable are leaders responsible for supervising these soldiers who through their inaction or inattention allowed abuses to occur.
It appears that when Army officials were alerted to alleged abuses in January 2004 they did everything right. They immediately began an investigation and moved to correct conditions in the facility.
Justice will be served. We have the finest military justice system in the world and we can be confident that it will punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent. We must also respect that while criminal investigations are ongoing, military officials will be constrained in the details they can share and the public comments they can make.
Where the Pentagon appears to have fallen short was in adequately informing the President and the Congress, and appropriately, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was right to apologize during his May 7 testimony before Congress for not fully briefing Congressional leader on the investigation. That was just wrong.
The next steps are clear:
The military should pursue criminal investigations against wrongdoers, and, as Secretary Rumsfeld has ordered, launch an independent inquiry into institutional and systematic failures that may have contributed to the problem.
Pentagon officials should frequently update Congress on the progress of these efforts. Likewise, Congress should undertake its own investigation, evaluating the effectiveness of the military enquiries.
The U.S. military must allow appropriate outside observers to inspect military detention centers in the theater.
At the same time, the U.S. armed forces and the American people must not lose sight of the mission yet to be completed. We have a legal and moral responsibility to return sovereignty to a legitimate government. Nothing will regain the respect of the Iraqis and the world more than doing the right thing in Iraq. That is the most determined response that America can make to the betrayal at Abu Ghraib.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.