St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Congressional reaction to the prison abuse scandal in Iraq took on
an increasingly angry tone Thursday, with some Democrats calling for the firing
of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
In response, Republicans accused the Democrats of partisan politics. Sen.
Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., was among some who went even further. He said
calls for Rumsfeld to step down could endanger the U.S. military effort by
"undermining the authority of the Department of Defense."
Both sides agreed that today's separate appearances by Rumsfeld before the
Senate and House armed services panels loom as pivotal.
"It's extremely important, and he needs to answer a lot of questions, so
Americans can learn and decide," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking member
of the House Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Pentagon
leaders committed "an error in judgment" by not making clear to subordinates
that a scandal capable of damaging U.S. efforts in Iraq should have been moved
up the chain of command quickly.
"This is the kind of thing you don't just let work up through the
normal channels. It should have been kicked up to the highest level so it could
be dealt with quickly. Why didn't that happen? This is a question that
threatens our overall policy, so obviously a decision-maker needed to know,"
But there was a sharp split over whether Rumsfeld should be held accountable.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer
of Maryland, called for Rumsfeld to step down, as did other representatives and
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. They said it would help the U.S. effort in Iraq by
showing how seriously America takes the issue.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, countered that Democrats "want to win
the White House more than they want to win the war."
Bond, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Democrats
calling for Rumsfeld's ouster before he's "even had a chance to respond to
questions" are hoping to score political points - at a risk to the nation.
"There are some violently partisan Democrats, both in Congress and the media,
and it appears to me to be an effort to undermine the president, to discredit
the president, in advance of the election," Bond said. "Raising questions about
our commitment encourages the forces of evil to continue their efforts and
raises questions among the people in the military."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
"I don't think there's anything partisan about accountability," he said. "I
think the president and his Cabinet must be held accountable for their
Durbin criticized Rumsfeld for not disclosing that a scandal was brewing and
that pictures were about to be televised showing the abuse.
"He's entitled to his day in court, and he'll have it (today) before the Armed
Services Committee, but ... I will not rule out supporting his termination,"
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,
said that Rumsfeld's job is to win the war, not personally oversee criminal
Skelton also dismissed calls for Rumsfeld's resignation, saying: "We're in the
middle of a war. I'm interested in making this thing work."
But Skelton said he was "terribly disappointed" in the Pentagon's failure to
inform Congress or the White House about the abuse allegations.
Bond made it clear that tough questioning of Rumsfeld and other civilian and
military leaders at the Pentagon will come from both sides of the aisle. He
said he had read the Pentagon's internal 53-page report on the prison abuses
and called it "very ugly."
Why Pentagon leaders didn't inform senior members of Congress and the
administration "is one of the things that's going to be explored in great
detail," Bond said. "They sure as hell should have told us to be ready for it.
I would fault them. I'm unhappy and will continue to express my displeasure
over not having been advised of that."
Durbin said that what he learned at recent intelligence panel hearings was "so
troubling, so sickening," that Congress needs to investigate how the Pentagon
handled the matter.
There is broad concern that the debate could become even more politicized, and
that it risks eroding support in Congress for the war. While partisan politics
are inevitable during an election year, members face a stark choice, said Rep.
Todd Akin, R-Mo., of the House Armed Services Committee. They can either
support an aggressive policy of going after terrorists, he said, or they can
get sidetracked and sit back and wait for another attack.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said military officials should have aired the
controversy as soon as they learned of it, which might have defused the
reaction. The fact that it was thrust upon the public, Congress and White House
by the media has resulted in "raising the partisan angst," he said.
Democrats said Congress needs to act aggressively because it has not exercised
its oversight role sufficiently during the war in Iraq, including over issues
of spending, planning for the post-war period and detainee rights.
But Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., said it's too big a leap to connect questions of
legal policy related to the status of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to criminal
actions by a few troops in Iraq.
Calls for Rumsfeld to resign miss the point and could be damaging to the
critical need to fix any systemic problems, said William Arkin, a former Army
What's needed is a full investigation of what happened, including the role of
military police, military intelligence, private contractors, the CIA and
special operations forces, Arkin said. But he said that if Rumsfeld were fired
or resigned, the reaction of many in government would be that the matter has
been resolved - without the problems having been corrected.
Michele Flournoy, a former high-ranking Pentagon official, says Rumsfeld and
other Defense Department leaders are in a bind.
They have to juggle competing priorities, said Flournoy, now with the Center
for Strategic and International Studies. Those include prosecuting the war in
Iraq while being forthcoming with Congress about the prison abuse problem, and
at the same time not compromising criminal proceedings or courts-martial by
saying too much.
"The civilian leaders need to be as forceful as possible in condemning what
happened; at the same time they have to be careful not to say anything that
could be prejudicial and undermine the prosecution of these individuals,"
Flournoy said. "And they have to balance the need to get to the bottom of this
and take corrective action with the need to keep fighting a war."