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Crisis creates opportunity. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other prisons at the hands of American guards has provided the crisis, and therefore the opportunity to fix systemic problems in the military to ensure similar failures don’t recur. But this will only happen if we have the courage to investigate more thoroughly than it appears we are now willing to do. This mess may serve as a wake-up call that the military faces serious issues which we must address in an equally serious, no-nonsense manner. That means getting to ground truth and following the trail no matter where it may lead. The first thing we need to do is discover all the abuses at military prisons around the world. Ground truth will be painful. There are surely even more incidents than we know about right now. This is going to get worse before it gets better. But until we know the universe of problems, we can’t begin to fix them. To paraphrase Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a different context, there are some things we know. One thing we know now is that we don’t know it all. We don’t know what we don’t know. The second thing we need to do is follow that trail no matter where it leads. If we pull the string and someone in the VIP section of the Pentagon squirms, so be it. If it leads all the way to the White House, then we need to know that, too. We can’t honestly say that we are on a search for the truth if we only want that truth to go no higher than the nearest three-star general. The abuses may be the result of command climate and confusion created by the attitude of the senior leadership; we saw that attitude reflected in the now infamous U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Defense memos examining the powers of the commander-in-chief, the definition of torture and its legal defenses. In a hierarchical military chain of command, the attitude at the top falls like a rock down to the bottom. If that attitude may be part of the problem, the various and sundry statements out of Washington bear scrutiny. Other possible causes include recruiting (who thought these would be good soldiers?), training, supervision, leadership, role of contractors and a confusing command structure. Now, of course, accountability has become an issue as well. Right now there are a series of investigations looking into discrete parts of whatever happened. That’s surely helpful, but it’s clearly not enough. This patchwork quilt of investigations inevitably creates cracks through which important issues, and solutions, can fall. Moreover, it’s likely that the various investigations could come to different, and perhaps conflicting, conclusions. Someone has to take the view of the entire battlefield from 35,000 feet. The investigation conducted by former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown, former Congresswoman Tillie Fowler and former General Charles Horner is a recognition of the need, but only a quarter-hearted effort to meet it. It’s a toothless tiger: They have a two-month time limit, no subpoena power and insufficient staff. Indeed, one wonders if it was a cynical attempt to placate a public that has a short attention span. A tiger with teeth To get to the heart of issues like these will require an investigative body with considerable resources and horsepower. It will require smart, courageous people who are absolutely independent-and bulletproof. They will require subpoena power and the ability to put witnesses under oath. Article 135 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides courts of inquiry to examine events of this magnitude. Courts of inquiry have all the power, authority and gravitas necessary. They consist of three or more officers. These could be retired “four stars” (think of Admiral Hal Gehman from the shuttle investigation). Indeed, such a body could consist of officers from military services other than the Army. It could even include officers from coalition forces on an ex officio basis. There are other models but this is certainly one that works. An all-civilian team, such as an independent prosecutor, wouldn’t work as well. The effort needs to be primarily military since this involves military issues such as culture and command structure. In this election year, the assembled team must be nonpartisan. Congress surely has a role, but congressional hearings aren’t the right vehicle for this kind of hard-core investigation, particularly in an election year. Congress doesn’t have the time, expertise or the inclination. The appropriate role of Congress will be to act on whatever recommendations are developed, including legislation, and to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. Yes, crisis does indeed create opportunity. We have been given an awful opportunity. We must not muff it. The only thing worse than what happened at Abu Ghraib would be for it to happen again. John D. Hutson, a retired rear admiral and former Navy judge advocate general, is the dean and president of Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.

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