Testimony does little to clarify situation

Fellow Republicans ask most pointed questions

Crisis In Iraq

May 08, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - More than six hours of congressional testimony by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top commanders shed virtually no new light yesterday on key questions about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.

There was no clear answer, despite repeated inquiries, about a mystery at the center of the scandal involving military police from a Maryland-based reserve unit: whether they were directed by their superiors to follow orders from military intelligence officers and private contractors in handling detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Equally murky was the matter of Rumsfeld's future.

One day after President Bush said Rumsfeld "will stay in my Cabinet," the defense secretary was surprisingly open in acknowledging that he has considered resigning and would "in a minute" if he felt he had become ineffective. Rumsfeld succeeded in controlling his combative side and avoiding obvious missteps during his long day on Capitol Hill. But he still might have left in a weaker position.

Asked by Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana whether he would step down if doing so would repair some of the damage to the U.S. image around the world, Rumsfeld said, "That's possible."

That admission, coupled with Rumsfeld's warning that the scandal will likely get "more terrible" once more videos and photos of American abuses in Iraq become public, could further undermine his position.

Calls for his resignation have already come from Democrats, including presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, and publications such as The New York Times and The Economist. His opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee was interrupted by protesters who shouted, "Fire Rumsfeld!" before they were escorted from the hearing room.

Recent polling has shown a sharp drop in the popularity of the defense secretary, dubbed "Rumstud" by Bush after his daily war briefings made Rumsfeld a media darling. But if the prison scandal worsens, the damage to Bush's re-election bid would likely increase, along with pressure on Rumsfeld to resign.

Some of the sharpest comments and questions for Rumsfeld, during separate hearings before the Senate and House Armed Services committees, came from fellow Republicans.

Famous for bombarding underlings with demanding, minutely detailed questions, Rumsfeld appeared rattled when he found himself on the receiving end of similar treatment from Sen. John McCain.

The Arizona Republican pressed Rumsfeld over the issue of blurred lines of authority at the prison. McCain asked him to explain precisely what the chain of command was, from the guards in Iraq to his office at the Pentagon.

"Mr. Secretary, you can't answer these questions?" demanded McCain, after Rumsfeld deferred to a subordinate, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, for a reply.

Rumsfeld could have discovered who was in charge of the interrogations with a single phone call, McCain insisted.

The defense secretary replied, in general terms, that military guards "are trained to guard people. They're not trained to interrogate." But he indicated that the specific orders given to the guards at Abu Ghraib were the subject of an Army inquiry that began late last month.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine, said it would have been "far better" if Rumsfeld had "told the world about these pictures" before they were made public by CBS.

"I wish I had done that," the defense secretary responded.

Rumsfeld acknowledged, in a contrite statement delivered at both hearings, that he had "failed to recognize how important it was" to let the president, Congress and the public know about the prison abuses.

One of Washington's savviest and most experienced political operators, Rumsfeld said he had been "blindsided" by a problem that has become, in his words, a "catastrophe." He said he took "full responsibility" for what happened "on my watch." But it remained as unclear as ever just why he failed to anticipate it.

Rumsfeld blamed the scandal on the unauthorized release to the news media of photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. He was vague about when he first learned of the existence of the damaging photographs, which he described as "radioactive." He placed the date sometime between the start of the initial investigation in mid-January and the broadcast by CBS on April 28.

Rumsfeld said he didn't have "any idea" whether Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had discussed with him Myers' efforts to persuade CBS to delay its broadcast about the abuses. Myers said that the matter had been discussed "at lower levels" between his staff and Rumsfeld's "for some time."

Even some of the staunchest pro-defense members of Congress seemed openly skeptical of Rumsfeld's explanations. When Rumsfeld said that public announcements had been made about the Abu Ghraib investigations as far back as January, Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, cut him off.

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