Abu Ghraib's Message for the Rank and File ; Six Lower-Level Enlistees Have Been Punished, Though Lynndie England's Fate Is Unsettled

Article excerpt

The trial that was supposed to close the book on a year of shame and condemnation of US military operations at Abu Ghraib didn't follow the script. And now the infamous photographic icon, Pfc. Lynndie England, is likely to be the focus of new military legal machinations for weeks, if not months.

But what the latest case did accomplish, even though it ended abruptly in a mistrial, was to refocus attention on who is facing courts-martial and who isn't. So far, six lower-level enlisted men and women have been punished by the military for inflicting humiliation and torture on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Ms. England's fate remains unknown at the moment. Another solider is scheduled to go on trial soon.

Although some 10 Pentagon investigations have highlighted "systemic" problems in the Iraqi operation, they found that higher- level officials issued no policies nor orders that could have led to the prisoner abuses that were aired around the world in a series of graphic photos. Only two senior officers with direct command responsibility for Abu Ghraib - Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski and Col. Thomas Pappas - have been reprimanded, but not prosecuted, for their oversight of the facility.

Lessons from the trials

If any lesson can be drawn from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse legal fallout so far, it may be this: The lowest-level soldier has the highest level of responsibility. The rank and file must clearly know right from wrong - both in terms of their own actions and orders from superiors.

"What the average soldier is going to take away from Abu Ghraib is a reinforcement of what he learned at boot camp - that he's responsible for his actions," says Mary Hall, a former military judge now in private practice. "These Abu Ghraib courts-martial are a blunt reminder to even the newest private that they have a duty to just say 'no.' "

The judge presiding over England's sentencing hearing declared a mistrial Wednesday afternoon after Pvt. Charles Graner, a former guard at Abu Ghraib who was previously convicted on charges related to the abuses, testified. In referring to the photo of England with an Iraqi prisoner tethered with a leash, Mr. Graner said England was asked to perform a legitimate function that he planned to use in future training.

That didn't fit with what England had said earlier in the hearing - that she knew what she was doing was wrong and that it had been done for the US soldiers' amusement. The judge said he therefore could not proceed with one of the charges - conspiracy - and declared a mistrial. But that doesn't mean either that the case is dropped or that it is likely to be retried. It just means that the defense and prosecution will most likely renegotiate a new plea deal.

"The charges are not dismissed," says Eugene Fidell, a Washington lawyer and president of the National Institute for Military Justice. "They simply have to impanel a new jury, and the process will crank up again."

But to others, Graner's testimony, along with other aspects of the case, raise more questions about higher chain-of-command responsibility in the case.

England had testified earlier in the trial that she posed for the photos in humiliating or brutal ways with the Iraqi prisoners because her superior told her to do so. After the judge admonished the defense lawyers, and they left with England for lunch, she returned with a changed story - that she knew what she did was wrong. …