Still passing the buck?

The long-delayed Church report, which promised to investigate U.S. interrogation procedures used in Iraq, Cuba, and Afghanistan, has finally been completed. While not yet available to the public, the New York Times got a chance to peek at the executive summary. Not surprisingly, the report concluded that “Pentagon officials and senior commanders were not directly responsible for the detainee abuses.” There is certainly a strong case to be made to the contrary, as evidenced by the recent lawsuit broughty by the ACLU and Human Rights First against Donald Rumsfeld for his role in various interrogation abuses. But that aside, and judging from the Times‘ summary, many of the Church report’s findings themselves might contradict the conclusion that higher-ups are free from direct responsibility.

The Church report notes that in January of this year, a new set of interrogation procedures was approved by the military. (They have yet to be publicly released.) These new procedures, it seems, clear up any existing ambiguities that may have led to abuses. Yet Church still feels the need to paper over the motivation behind this clarification by stating that those ambiguities, “although they would not permit abuse, could obscure commanders’ oversight of techniques being employed.” It seems pretty hard to imagine that an “ambiguity” would keep a commander from seeing that sodomizing and beating detainees counts as torture. And it is an even further leap to suggest that the widespread nature of these abuses does not implicate Pentagon officials’ clear sanctioning of these methods.

The closest the Church report comes to laying blame at the top is noting that high-level Pentagon officials did not provide “specific guidance on interrogation techniques…to the commanders responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq.” Of course, the report merely calls it a “missed opportunity,” a rather disgraceful way to describe the Bush administration’s refusal to take seriously the various military personnel who came forward about inhumane interrogations, or its refusal to pay attention to the Red Cross reports that directly described detainee abuse.

There’s still hope that the report will face scrutiny, and that future, less partisan, inquiries be launched. Today, the Senate Armed Services Committee is conducting a hearing on the report, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) is pushing for an independent review. Noting the ineffectual nature of the inquiries thus far, Levin states, “In the end, I can only conclude that the Defense Department is not able to assess accountability at senior levels, particularly when investigators are in the chain of command of the officials whose policies and actions they are investigating.” Indeed.