9/11 and Abu Ghraib: Who’s to Blame?


Here’s a Hint: He Always Says, ‘I Didn’t Do It!’

Let me get this straight: Two vital reports were released yesterday by the federal government. In one of them, a probe of the 9/11 attacks, the conclusion was there was a systemic problem, and no particular person or group of persons was blamed. In the other report, a probe of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse incidents and the Pentagon’s general handling of overseas prisoners, the conclusion was that there was no systemic problem, only “aberrations,” and a few rogue soldiers were blamed.

In fact, the exact reverse is true. In each case.

Take the 9/11 attacks. Former New Jersey governor and GOP loyalist Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said, “Our failures took place over many years and administrations. There’s no single individual who is responsible for our failures. Yet individuals and institutions cannot be absolved of responsibility. Any person in a senior position within our government during this time bears some element of responsibility for our government’s actions.”

He added, “Having said that, it is not our purpose to assign blame. As we said at the outset, we look back so that we can look forward.” Yeah, well, look under the carpet. That’s where you swept the blame. Or look on page 208 of your own final report. Speaking about the Bush administration’s “military plans” during the first eight months of 2001, the report says: “At the Joint Chiefs of Staff, [the chairman, General Henry Shelton did not recall much interest by the new administration in military options against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He could not recall any specific guidance on the topic from the secretary.” The secretary is Donald Rumsfeld.

The report continues:

Brian Sheridan—the outgoing assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SOLIC), the key counterterrorism policy office in the Pentagon—never briefed Rumsfeld. He departed on January 20[, 2001]; he had not been replaced by 9/11.”

So, the head of “the key counterterrorism policy office in the Pentagon” promptly resigned, as is normal when a new party comes to power, and Rumsfeld and his staff made no move to fill that important job? It was vacant when the planes hit us?

Wait. It gets worse.

That section of the final report is almost identical to a section in Staff Statement No. 6, the commission’s review of the Defense Department’s role before 9/11. That staff report was released in March 2004, and was publicly discussed and written about. But there’s some stuff (and not just rumors) in that staff report that didn’t make it into the final report—and there’s been no hint that it was omitted because it was factually untrue. Here’s the passage in the staff report (I’ve put the different stuff in boldface type):

“Brian Sheridan—the outgoing Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), the key counterterrorism policy office in DOD—never briefed Rumsfeld. Lower-level SOLIC officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense told us that they thought the new team was focused on other issues and was not especially interested in their counterterrorism agenda. Undersecretary [Douglas] Feith told the Commission that when he arrived at the Pentagon in July 2001, Rumsfeld asked him to focus his attention on working with the Russians on agreements to dissolve the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and preparing a new nuclear arms control pact. Traditionally, the primary DOD official responsible for counterterrorism policy had been the assistant secretary of defense for SOLIC. The outgoing assistant secretary left on January 20, 2001, and had not been replaced when the Pentagon was hit on September 11.”

“Focused on other issues”? “Not especially interested in their counterterrorism agenda”? The agenda of the Pentagon office that the final report says is “the key counterterrorism office in DOD”?

Rumsfeld not only never filled Sheridan’s important post, but he also specifically told Feith to work on freeing the U.S. from anti-missile pacts. That certainly made a whole lot of defense contractors happy.

So, let’s see. Which part of this particular pre-9/11 problem is “systemic”? Looks as if the secretary of defense made some clear choices about what to focus on. Looks as if the secretary of defense monumentally screwed up in this key instance. And this is only one of several such examples of specific, high-level screwups in the 9/11 report.

Now, take the prisoner-abuse report by the army’s inspector general. (We’re talking Pentagon here, so this is also Rumsfeld’s ultimate responsibility—not only the abuse, but also the investigation.)

I’ll just let Josh White and Scott Higham of The Washington Post tell you about the prisoner-abuse report in the first three sizzling paragraphs of their Friday story:

“The Army’s inspector general reported yesterday that 94 incidents of confirmed or possible detainee abuse occurred in U.S. prison facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, but he added that the incidents were not due to ‘systemic’ problems, even though a months-long inspection found that soldiers were inadequately trained and lacked proper supervision and clear orders.

“The report by Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek—presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hastily scheduled hearing yesterday morning—concluded that cases of abuse such as those at Abu Ghraib prison were ‘aberrations’ that did not result from flawed Army doctrine.

“Some senators and human rights advocates criticized the report. They said it ignored many of the most important questions, such as the hiding of ‘ghost detainees’ and the use of unmuzzled dogs during interrogations. They also said the report’s findings are contradicted by the International Committee of the Red Cross.”

So, there was no “systemic” problem? These were “aberrations”? Problems with “training,” “supervision,” and “orders” aren’t systemic? Even the Red Cross doesn’t believe the Pentagon.

Bart Simpson famously said, “I didn’t do it!” And now Rumsfeld says the same thing. Uh-huh.