The meeting was small and unpublicized. In a room on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building last week, Condoleezza Rice grittily endured an hour's worth of pleading from leading human-rights activists who want to see a 9/11-style commission created to investigate the abuse of detainees in the war on terror. According to participants, the president's national-security adviser didn't repeat the line that George W. Bush had delivered to the American people in a speech two days before: that the scandal was the work of "a few American troops who dishonored our country." Nor did Rice try to make the case that by razing Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison--a Bush proposal that took even his Defense secretary by surprise--administration officials would put the scandal behind them. "I recognize we have a very grave problem," Rice said, according to Scott Horton, a New York lawyer at the meeting whose account was corroborated by another participant. "There are major investigations going on right now to fully understand the scope and nature of it."

But numerous critics--not just in the human-rights community, but in Congress and the U.S. military as well--insist that the current probes are still too limited to bring full accountability. Some critics say Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department is doing its best to stop potentially incriminating information from coming out, that it's deflecting Congress's inquiries and shielding higher-ups from investigation. Documents obtained by NEWSWEEK also suggest that Rumsfeld's aides are trying hard to contain the scandal, even within the Pentagon. Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith, who is in charge of setting policy on prisoners and detainees in occupied Iraq, has banned any discussion of the still-classified report on Abu Ghraib written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, which has circulated around the world. Shortly after the Taguba report leaked in early May, Feith subordinates sent an "urgent" e-mail around the Pentagon warning officials not to read the report, even though it was on Fox News. In the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK, officials in Feith's office warn that the leak is being investigated for "criminal prosecution" and that no one should mention the Taguba report to anybody, even to family members. Feith has turned his office into a "ministry of fear," says one military lawyer. A spokesman for Feith, Maj. Paul Swiergosz, says the e-mail warning was intended to prevent employees from downloading a classified report onto unclassified computers.

More worrisome, critics say, is that the Pentagon is investigating itself. Maj. Gen. George Fay, the No. 2 in Army Military Intelligence, is in charge of the probe into whether his own intel officers directed the MPs to abuse prisoners. But so far Fay has questioned no one above the rank of colonel, military and other sources say. Among those critical of Fay is Sgt. Samuel Provance, who was formerly in military intelligence at Abu Ghraib and has told reporters in recent weeks that the Army is engaged in a cover-up. "I had to volunteer more information than was being asked of me [by Fay]. It was like I was adding to his burden," Provance told NEWSWEEK last week. "There are so many soldiers directly involved who haven't been talked to."

The Army has tried to silence Provance. In a May 21 disciplinary order, a copy of which was shown to NEWSWEEK, battalion commander Lt. Col. James Norwood notifies Provance that he has lost his security clearance and is being "flagged" for violating a previous order to keep quiet. That means he is ineligible for promotions, awards or security clearance. Norwood appears to threaten Provance with prosecution, saying, "There is reason for me to believe that you may have been aware of the improper treatment of the detainees at Abu Ghraib before they were reported by other soldiers." General Fay's conclusions, Norwood warns, "may reveal that you should face adverse action for your failure to report."

Yet no officer above General Fay's rank is likely to have to worry about the conclusions of his investigation. Under military doctrine, Fay, as a two-star general, "can only hold a one-star accountable," says an Army general familiar with such investigations. "He can say someone higher up is the proximate cause, but he can't actually have a finding that says, 'I recommend Maj. Gen. so-and-so be relieved of command.' And if somebody tells him it came from the CIA, what can Fay do? Nothing. He can only say it's outside the jurisdiction of his investigation." Because Fay was appointed by Iraq commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, he is also effectively limited from taking his probe beyond Sanchez's command, says Scott Silliman, a former Air Force lawyer who is now a law professor at Duke. "It would be difficult for Fay even to question Sanchez," says Silliman. In fact, none of the five investigations the military itself is now conducting is aimed higher up the chain of command than Sanchez.

Pentagon officials said last week that Sanchez would be replaced as commander of Joint Task Force-7 in Iraq. Formally, Sanchez's recall is unrelated to the scandal. But military sources acknowledge that an increasing body of evidence indicates his command has not been forthright about when it learned of the abuses or what it did--and failed to do--about them. The Red Cross first warned Joint Task Force-7 of the kind of abuses seen in the prison photos last November, fully two months before Sanchez launched an investigation. The general says he didn't find out about the abuses until January. But two military sources say his deputy, Maj. Gen. Walter Wodjakowski, was present at a meeting in late November to discuss a response to the Red Cross. Also at the meeting was Col. Mark Warren, Sanchez's top legal adviser. In mid-May Warren denied in reply to a NEWSWEEK question that his office had drafted the command's response, which brushed off the Red Cross allegations. But Warren later acknowledged under oath to the Senate Armed Services Committee that his JAG team had drafted the command's response.

The White House insists the president wants to conduct a "systemwide" probe of the detainee issue. Administration officials point to a new "independent panel" formed by Rumsfeld. A top Bush aide says the panel--consisting of four members of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, including former Defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Harold Brown--will address "the totality" of all the investigations. But Rumsfeld himself, in his letter appointing the panel, indicates that his interest is mainly in looking at future issues like interrogation, force structure and training. "Issues of personal accountability will be resolved through established military justice and administrative procedures," Rumsfeld says, "although any information you may develop will be welcome." (Former Rep. Tillie Fowler, a member, says the group is now "putting together a timeline of who knew what when.")

On Capitol Hill, legislators on both sides of the aisle complain testily that the Pentagon has turned into an informational black hole. Some 2,000 out of 6,000 pages were missing from the copy of the Taguba report delivered from the Pentagon to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita last week called this merely an "oversight." But among the missing pages were key documents, including the final section of Taguba's lengthy questioning of Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, the unit that actually ran the interrogations in Abu Ghraib Block 1A when the abuses occurred. Sources say Pappas gave Taguba a detailed account of why he believed that "policies and procedures" at Abu Ghraib "were enacted as a specific result" of recommendations made by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander at Guantanamo. Miller denies that he exported to Iraq techniques used on Qaeda and Taliban suspects at Gitmo. But Pappas even had some documents to buttress his case, sources say, including one titled "Draft Update for the Secretary of Defense."

Some senators say the Pentagon has so far obscured two issues: who ordered Miller to Abu Ghraib in the first place, and who in the Pentagon knew of the interrogation practices put in place there. Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld's under secretary for intelligence, merely said at a May 7 hearing of the Armed Services Committee that Miller had gone to Iraq "at my encouragement." But neither Sanchez nor centcom commander, Gen. John Abizaid, would tell a later hearing if they knew of involvement by civilian higher-ups at the Pentagon. As one committee member, Sen. Robert Byrd, told NEWSWEEK: "I was stunned that the two top generals [in the Gulf] hemmed and hawed and claimed they had no idea whether the secretary of Defense or the civilian leadership of the Defense Department played any role."

Miller himself has been accused of being less than forthright in a classified briefing before Congress. In a May 21 letter to Miller, Rep. Jane Harman chastised the general for "gaps and discrepancies in your presentation" and for selectively withholding information in a classified session the day before. Harman, the ranking minority member on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, added that she now questions Miller's "candor." (A spokesman for Miller, Barry Johnson, told NEWSWEEK that Miller "is drafting a response and providing additional facts.")

Even Bush's Republican allies, like Armed Services Committee chair John Warner, want to know more. And now the White House seems to be constructing a legal moat around the president. Its argument is that Bush's orders were simply disobeyed. Rice told the human-rights lawyers last week that the president's clear directives on observing the Geneva Conventions and anti-torture laws were not followed. She also allowed that she didn't know yet the full scope of the scandal, which seemed to conflict with Bush's insistence that a few bad MPs were to blame. A senior administration official insists there is no contradiction: "When the president talks about Abu Ghraib in that specific, particular way... I just don't think anybody believes you're going to find it that widespread across the system." But until all of the facts of the prisoner-abuse scandal come out, nobody will be able to make a sound judgment about who is ultimately responsible.