It has been gratifying to see Senator John Warner, the Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, lead a bipartisan effort to look into the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. The hearings have already done far more than the Pentagon ever intended to do in providing a public airing of the Abu Ghraib disaster. But with each day's horrible revelations, it seems evident that the hearings will not be enough. It is also hard to believe that the military's own investigations will yield much, given the shifting of blame offered up by top Pentagon leaders, who continue to insist that the nightmare at Abu Ghraib was an isolated case of unsanctioned behavior by a few sick soldiers.
That defense, never particularly credible, has been undercut by the Red Cross, by the emerging testimony of detainees and now by the Pentagon's own records. The Denver Post reported this week that military records documented the deaths of at last five Iraqi prisoners during brutal interrogations, only one of them at Abu Ghraib. In one especially chilling case, the former head of Iraq's air force turned himself in and was held at a "high value" prison, where interrogators appear to have killed him by stuffing him headfirst into a sleeping bag, sitting on his chest and covering his mouth. The Pentagon papered this over with a press release saying the prisoner "said he didn't feel well and subsequently lost consciousness."
Despite the efforts of some of the senators — notably two Republicans, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and three Democrats, Carl Levin, Jack Reed and Hillary Clinton — each new panel of witnesses simply adds to the fog of misunderstanding. This week, for example, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the troops in Iraq, said he had never seen a protocol permitting the harsh treatment of prisoners until it surfaced at a hearing a week earlier. The Army's subsequent claim that the orders were the work of a single captain seemed even more implausible.
The theory that a midranking intelligence officer carried out such a drastic shift in the military's normal rules did fit right in with the overriding theme of testimony thus far: senior officers blaming those far below them for everything. General Sanchez said Red Cross reports on prisoner abuse had gone to low-level officers who had never passed them on. Other accounts contradict that. But in any case, that's not a defense — it's an indictment of his command.
Among the big questions that need to be answered is how the government and the military handled the repeated complaints from the Red Cross. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some of his closest aides said they had been kept in the dark even longer than General Sanchez. But Red Cross officials met more than once in the past year with top American officials in Iraq and in Washington. Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt reported in The Times this week that the American military's first response had been to curtail Red Cross inspections. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Red Cross had been so outraged by the soldiers' treatment of prisoners that it considered changing its policy and making its reports public.
The military has repeatedly assured us that it will get to the bottom of this mess, but it has not provided any evidence that it's really capable of doing so. Senator Warner, meanwhile, has a long list of witnesses to call. He also wants the Pentagon to deliver a pile of documents, including all reviews by Defense Department lawyers of interrogation rules at Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay. Mr. Rumsfeld should fully and immediately comply.
But given the quality of the testimony so far, it is not likely that the Senate hearings will produce the answers the public deserves. While this may not be the ideal time for an independent investigation, it is getting hard to see another option. Neither the Defense Department's inspector general nor Mr. Rumsfeld's office seems capable of mounting a reliable investigation so close to home. The best bet is for Congress to form a special committee with subpoena powers and an investigative staff. That would require, however, that other Republican leaders in Congress show the same honorable determination that Mr. Warner has demonstrated.