Prison Abuse Scandal Goes Right to the Top

As the investigations of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal unfold, we eventually will hear the voices of the soldiers. Although they won’t necessarily speak in unison, the men and women absorbing the brunt of George W. Bush’s foolish decision to invade Iraq are likely to agree on at least one principle: Those at the top must be held responsible for the abuses along with those at the bottom.

That important point is obscured by all the right-wing rhetoric about the few “rotten apples” whose prosecution should close this episode. The honor, decency and courage of the great majority who serve don’t excuse the failures of the Pentagon and the White House. Vague and unlawful orders, inadequate or nonexistent training, confusing command structures, inadequate resources and incompetent leadership intensify the probability of atrocities by occupiers in wartime.

We now know that certain Bush administration and Pentagon officials have undermined American compliance with the Geneva Conventions. As long ago as Jan. 25, 2002, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales advised the President that the “new paradigm” created by the war on terrorism “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

Last autumn, conscientious Army officers in the Judge Advocate General Corps quietly sought help from members of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, because they feared the disastrous consequences of such radical departures from international law. The J.A.G. officers told Scott Horton-a partner at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler who chaired the bar’s human-rights committee-that the Geneva standards had been compromised by the highest-ranking civilians in the Defense Department.

The latest revelations by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker suggest that those attitudes shaped secret intelligence operations at prison camps in Iraq. The crimes at Abu Ghraib were not necessarily isolated incidents that occurred outside the chain of command. And further evidence will soon be brought forward in the defense of an Army staff sergeant charged with desertion.

Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia is a Nicaraguan immigrant who joined the Army as a teenager. Following his initial three-year hitch, Mr. Mejia joined the Florida National Guard. His unit was called to duty in January 2003. From May until October, he served in Iraq’s dangerous Sunni triangle, earning a decoration for “exceptional meritorious service.” But disillusioned by the war’s senseless carnage and the mistreatment of soldiers and civilians alike, he decided that he wouldn’t go back.

Now Mr. Mejia is confined to Fort Stewart, Ga., awaiting court-martial because he went AWOL last October when he returned home.

Upon his surrender to Army authorities on March 15, he immediately applied for conscientious-objector status. The statement he filed then includes telling anecdotes about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Al Assad airbase northwest of Baghdad, where his unit was stationed. His recollections confirm Mr. Hersh’s reporting.

Arriving at the end of official hostilities in early May 2003, Mr. Mejia wrote, his platoon “was given the mission to run a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. Later they told us we could not call it that (POW camp), because the facility did not comply with the international rules set by the Geneva Convention on how to run a POW camp …. Some of the things that kept our camp from gaining POW status included that we were not the type of soldiers that should be running such a camp …. At one point, our platoon leader thought of reporting the site to the International Red Cross, as he thought the site was in clear violation of the Geneva Convention rules …. But the matter did not go anywhere because our platoon sergeant told the platoon leader his effort would not change a thing, other than to end his military career.”

Mr. Mejia and his Guard comrades received scant training from the officers of the cavalry regiment they replaced. As his commendation papers note, “while assigned to Al Assad EPW/detainee site, [he] eagerly assumed the responsibilities normally performed by military police and/or military intelligence.” But the Guard wasn’t prepared for those duties.

Mr. Mejia later wrote in his C.O. application that, under orders from “three mysterious interrogators” who dressed in civilian garb and were known only by nicknames, members of his unit mistreated prisoners to prepare them for questioning. The Guard soldiers kept the prisoners in sleep deprivation for periods of 24 to 48 hours, often by banging on the walls and loading pistols next to their ears. They were treated “with great cruelty,” he wrote.

Whatever Mr. Mejia’s fate, his story proves that only an investigation “up the line” and into the Pentagon will arraign those most culpable for this catastrophe-which will damage America’s reputation and interests for many years to come.