If the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel is revolting, almost as shocking is the reaction of American politicians to the scandal. Under political pressure, President Bush grudgingly apologized only after the apologies by his subordinates. His description of the abuses as “abhorrent“ failed to dampen the furor. In interviews with networks broadcasting in the Middle East, the president probably further inflamed the Islamic world by using the arrogant and commanding phraseology, “people in Iraq must understand...” and, “the people of the Middle East must understand...” The New York Times characterized the president’s tone in the interviews by writing, “In responding to the Muslim rage over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Mr. Bush sometimes sounded as if he was chiding angry Arabs for not appreciating the United States’ good intentions.”

At congressional hearings, Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled Secretary of Defense, repeatedly defended his failure to inform the Congress and the public about the abuse by claiming that he wanted to avoid violating defendants’ rights in the abuse cases. Since when has Rumsfeld—who has jailed Iraqis, Afghans and U.S. citizens indefinitely and without due process—cared about defendants’ rights? Only when they are the rights of U.S. military personnel and it suits his interest for political survival.

As for the members of Congress holding the hearings, they seemed more concerned about the release of the photos than with the barbaric behavior depicted in them. Would the behavior have been more acceptable if no photos or videos had been taken of it? Hardly.

Representative Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas) was outraged that the person in the U.S. government who leaked the photos was exploiting them to harm American efforts to end repression in Iraq. Similarly, Rumsfeld noted that the disk containing the photos—classified “secret”—had been improperly leaked to the media. But Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists noted that the government’s classification system was supposed to be used to safeguard national security information, not illegal activities. Contrary to the spin of the administration and its allies, whoever leaked the photos did the American public a service by exposing the flagrant disregard of U.S. military prison guards for American values.

Meanwhile Representative Phil Gingrey (R-Georgia) was trying his best to keep blame at the lowest level possible. He advocated prosecuting the lower level “miscreants” but giving only a “slap on the wrist” to their superiors.

During the hearings, members of Congress fell all over themselves to argue that this aberration didn’t stain the valiant efforts of the U.S. military to bring democracy and prosperity to Iraq. Unfortunately, the abuse may not have been an aberration and even if it was, the Bush administration’s culpability should not be lessened.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, the Army’s own investigator, reported that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was “systemic.” He charged that the Bush administration ignored complaints from the International Red Cross, which characterized the use of excessive coercion as “standard operating procedure” and the prison conditions as “tantamount to torture.” The Army is investigating the circumstances of many prisoners who died in U.S. custody in Iraq. Brig. Gen Janis Karpinski, the defrocked commandant of U.S. prisons in Iraq, claims that the euphemistic policy of setting “favorable conditions” for interrogations was made at a higher level. Suspiciously, it took a while after Saddam Hussein’s capture to declare him a prisoner of war, subject to the protection of the Geneva Convention. Was this period used to “soften him up” for interrogation?

Even if the torture and abuse shown in the photos are an aberration, the administration cannot escape blame. In any unnecessary invasion, the moral responsibility for any torture or abuse of prisoners, no matter how isolated, must accrue to those that set the war in motion.

The administration clearly tried to keep Congress and the public in the dark about the photos. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that General Abizaid, the Commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, reported the abuses and photos to Washington early on and characterized them as “a big deal.” Apparently so much so that Myers didn’t tell Congress and actively attempted to keep them from the American people. The day of the CBS “60 Minutes II” broadcast, Myers testified on Capitol Hill, but did not warn Congress about the impending release of the explosive photographs. Of course, Myers knew about their imminent disclosure because he had already attempted to delay the release of the photographs by pleading with CBS that televising the images would endanger U.S. troops. That rationale is unconvincing and comes from a man who should have worried more about the lives of U.S. troops at the time of the internal administration debates over going to war in the first place. In this instance, Myers’ concern about soldiers’ lives is about as believable as Rumsfeld’s defense of defendants’ rights.

All parties—the Bush administration, the uniformed military and members of Congress—appear to be behaving badly in this scandal.