Chain of Command

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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans has been following the investigation into prison abuse in Iraq, and wonders where responsibility lies in the military’s chain of command.

(Seamans) The word “systemic” has kept the buck, that mythical symbol of accountability, wandering forlornly around Washington unable to find a secure resting place since it’s days on Harry Truman’s desk. When things go right, administration officials crowd the TV cameras to get maximum political face-time. When things go wrong, they hang the blame on the system.

The Abu Ghraib prison fiasco is the latest example of how in Washington these days, the buck doesn’t stop here. At the hearings, when Senator John McCain ask Donald Rumsfeld, “Who was in charge of the system?” Rumsfeld could not answer. Senator Lindsey Graham said, “The old excuse is that it was a systemic failure, but who devised the system and who was in charge of the system?” Senator Carl Levin said, “It goes right up to the Pentagon and perhaps to the White House.”

Levin was alluding to the chain of command. On top of the chain is President Bush, the commander in chief. On the bottom is the lowly private. An army is only as good as its chain of command. The chain of command is only as good as the officers and non-coms who are the links. But a chain manned by buck passers becomes a “CYA” or Cover Your Anatomy mechanism. It hides mistakes and complaints so that they don’t go up the chain and spoil an officer’s or non-com’s chances for promotion. The result is sloppy discipline and cover-up, and things like the Abu Ghraib prison aberration happen.

And there’s more trouble ahead. Seymour Hersh, (who quite obviously taps a leak from Pentagon generals who allegedly resent Rumsfeld’s heavy hand) reports in The New Yorker magazine that Rumsfeld last year approved a secret program of harsh interrogation of Al Qaeda prisoners. Hersh claims Rumsfeld “encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq.” Hersh implies that Rumsfeld’s sanction went down the chain of command and created what was called the “atmosphere” at Abu Ghraib prison.

A Pentagon spokesman called Hersh’s report “unadulterated fantasy.” Rumsfeld said he only learned of the mistreatment of prisoners last January when the pictures first surfaced.

Now the systemic question is, how far up the chain of command will punishment go? Rumsfeld said he was “responsible” but was not resigning. Those at the bottom of the chain are facing a court martial in an open trial to which the public and news media are invited, but no TV cameras. Critics call this a scapegoat show trial to take the spotlight off Rumsfeld. I wonder if the jury will render its expected verdict by displaying a “thumbs down” signal as the Romans did.

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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