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WASHINGTON — Human rights groups and military watchdogs are labeling a recently released investigation into Abu Ghraib a whitewash and are joining calls by some top Congressional leaders for a new independent investigation.

The criticism comes in the wake of a nearly 400-page report authored by Vice. Adm. Albert T. Church, who concluded that top-level policy makers could not be blamed for some 70 confirmed cases of abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“Even in the absence of a precise definition of ‘humane treatment,’ it is clear that none of the pictured abuses at Abu Ghraib bear any resemblance to approved policies at any level, in any theatre,” Church concluded in his report exonerating Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon brass of accusations that they either encouraged or turned a blind eye to abuses.

Church was ordered by Rumsfeld to review existing investigations and explore any gaps that remain uncovered.

Briefing reporters Thursday afternoon, Church defended his report and stood by his decision not to interview Rumsfeld or Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers as part of his investigation. He could have interviewed them, he made clear, but said he didn’t have any questions for them.

But some top Congressional leaders say the investigation was not thorough enough.

“The Defense Department is not able to assess accountability at senior levels, particularly when investigators are in the chain of command of the officials whose policies and actions they are investigating,” charged Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking democrat on Senate Armed Services Committee, as Church was reporting his findings Thursday.

“Only an independent review can fully and objectively assess both the institutional and personal accountability for the abuse of detainees,” Levin said.

A slew of human rights groups agree.

“This was the mother of all whitewashes,” said Tom Malinowski, director of Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C.

“Of all the internal reports that the Pentagon has produced, this is by far the weakest and most clearly geared towards exoneration of senior officials, rather than finding the truth,” Malinowski said.

Questions remain

Even as Church was briefing senators Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union was raising the question of leadership accountability by releasing 800 pages of documents obtained from the Army under the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the documents is a report the group claims proves “a formal agreement between the Army and the CIA to hide ‘ghost detainees’ and an atmosphere of ‘releaseaphobia’ that prevented innocent detainees from being freed,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“It seems the military can only look down the chain of command, not up, when it comes to holding people accountable,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in the statement.

“An outside special counsel is the only way to ensure that all civilians who violated, or conspired to violate, the laws are held responsible for their crimes.”

Church said he was permitted by Rumsfeld to fill in the gaps, but critics say he failed to do that.

“There are still too many questions that haven’t been answered,” said Winslow Wheeler, a senior fellow for the Center for Defense Information, an independent Pentagon watchdog group, who spent more than 30 years as an investigator for the Government Accounting Office and as a congressional aide.

“DOD reports on this don’t cut it,” Wheeler said. “It’s like asking O.J. Simpson if he killed his wife. There needs to be independent inquiry that is not under chain of command, but unfortunately — to Congress’s undying shame — we still do not have the full story on all this.”

“Our concern is that there have been several investigations, but none of them so far have properly scrutinized senior officials,” said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for Amnesty International. The question remains, he said: “What did senior officials in the Pentagon order and what responsibility do the bear?”

Meanwhile, activists point out only junior troops have faced courts-martial even while field commanders implicated in abuse by previous investigations remain uncharged — and in some cases still in command.

Col. Thomas Pappas, for example, remains commander of the Darmstadt, Germany-based 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is preparing V Corps to return to Iraq in less than a year.

“Unfortunately, it does appear that the higher up you are, the less likely you are to be punished – and in fact may even be rewarded,” Hodgett said.

Despite the calls for an independent review, a Pentagon spokesman said it was not being considered.

Meanwhile, Church dismissed criticism levied at his report.

“I don’t believe anybody can call this a whitewash. The facts are what the facts are. I was an independent investigator, an IG. I took that very seriously,” said Church, adding “had the facts and the documentation led me to a different conclusion I would have made that conclusion.”

Asked if he was surprised, a year after abuses first surfaced, no field commanders or senior officers had faced court martial charges yet, Church said criminal investigations were still under way.

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