Q&A: Rumsfeld's testimony

Friday's hearings may signal Congress taking more power over - and responsibility for - US actions in Iraq.

Gail Russell Chaddock is the Monitor's congressional correspondent. She spoke with csmonitor.com's Josh Burek.

For many, Donald Rumsfeld has become the most visible symbol of the Iraq war and its rebuilding effort. Did his testimony Friday assure senators, American citizens, and a watchful global audience that the US military command structure is taking every effort to root out abuses?

Friday's hearing gave something that the world has been waiting for, which is a straightforward, flat-out apology. What Donald Rumsfeld said was, "I feel terrible by what happened to Iraqi detainees. They're human beings. They were in US custody. Our country has an obligation to treat them right. We didn't do that. That was wrong. To those Iraqis who were mistreated by US forces, I offer my deepest apology."

That was important. And listening, even as those hearings unfolded, what often got lost in the picture was the Iraqi detainees. You had senators upset that they weren't notified, you had concerns about the chain of command, but it was very important for the world audience that the secretary said up front, that this country is concerned by what happens to Iraqi detainees. So that was a first step.

I think, as a second thing, the Senate was looking for some sense of transparency and contrition. They did not want to see a defense secretary arrogantly talking down to them, as if they had no role in the process. They certainly do have a role in the process: it's called oversight. And they have been brushed aside by the Bush administration on many fronts, since the war on terrorism began.

This happens to all wartime congresses. And what usually happens after a war is that Congress builds up its institutional strength. After World War II, for example, when Congress played virtually no role, it established a professional staff capable of facing a much stronger executive, asking questions, and developing its own sources of information. After the Vietnam War, Congress established the War Powers Act, and a strong budgetary process. And what the hearing brought out very clearly, it seems to me, is Congress's shame at being so out of the loop on oversight of something as important as how detainees are treated. Whether or not they're treated with dignity and respect.

What lessons are being drawn from the use and impact of the images themselves?

Secretary Rumsfeld said he had known that there was an investigation of military abuse, but until he actually saw the images, he didn't realize how "radioactive" the situation actually was.

And he described his great frustration working in an environment where "people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off against the law to the media," even before they arrived in the Pentagon.

His criticism extends to the press as well. The media received press releases on abuse investigations in January and again on March 20, but until it saw the images, it didn't become as serious as it has become now.

But the big news from Friday's hearing is that there are many more photos and even videos that will make it out to the public perhaps even more shocking that what we have already seen. Members of Congress are bracing for more bad news.

Did Rumsfeld make an effective case that maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident, or will questions persist that the scandal symbolizes widespread, perhaps even systemic problems with US military culture?

I think the great weakness of his testimony was related to questions about the command structure. He was repeatedly pressed by members about this. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pressed the secretary: "Who was in charge of the interrogations?" Rumsfeld explained that he and Gen. Richard B. Myers had failed to bring a visual chart outlining the command structure, but McCain kept pressing. Members of Congress will keep asking such questions on their own.

One of the big concerns that many members raised in the Taguba report was that the military intelligence may have urged a strategy of "loosening up" detainees or making sure a detainee got "the treatment." Many members on both sides of the aisle question where those directives came from. Did they come from contractors? From military intelligence? Did President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld encourage that approach, when after Sept. 11, they said publicly that Guantanamo detainees were not technically protected by the Geneva Convention?

What obligations did Rumsfeld have to disclose these abuses earlier to members of Congress?

From their point of view, he at least had an obligation to warn them that the images were coming. Repeatedly, senators pointed to a closed hearing they held with Rumsfeld last Wednesday - just before these images aired on CBS. And senators on both sides are outraged that these images were forthcoming without their knowledge. Rumsfeld knew that they were coming, and he said he could have done better.

What are the political consequences for both parties?

This administration has been very secretive and unresponsive, even to Republican chairmen. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ever since the beginning of the war, has repeatedly asked for information on postwar planning, which was never forthcoming. The appropriations committee repeatedly asked for information about financing of the war, which has been covered only in emergency supplementals and has not been budgeted in any systematic way.

And most frustrating for Democrats, the minority in both the House and Senate, is that there have been very few public hearings of any kind on the war. They feel that a Republican Congress that was very eager to issue subpoenas and investigate President Clinton on anything - nothing too small to be investigated - has been unable to hold public hearings on something as important as the war. And that's an issue they will be certain to take into congressional elections this fall. Political handicappers have given Democrats little chance to take back the House, but these images give them some hope. Without Democrats with gavels in their hands, there will be no effective oversight on the conduct of this war, should Bush continue another term: that's the case they'll be making to voters.

What impact will Friday's testimony have on Rumsfeld's continuing role within the Bush administration?

Several prominent Democrats - and the editorial page of The New York Times - have called for Rumsfeld's resignation. He responded to this criticism by saying, "If I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute. I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it." The president has expressed confidence in him. But many Republicans, such as Mr. McCain, are very critical of the secretary.

However, for a secretary of defense to resign in the middle of war raises real questions for members on both sides of the aisle. Even ranking Democrat Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) - who opposed the Iraq war from the start and who has been very critical of Rumsfeld - said that if he thought the secretary's resignation would change the policies of the administration, he would be calling for it. However, Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, would be no change at all. In a way, that's a protection for Rumsfeld's position.

What actions might Bush take now to repair the damage done by this scandal?

A presidential apology via the King of Jordan is not adequate to bank the fires on worldwide outrage over these images and what they represent. One thing Rumsfeld announced is that he is looking into "compensation" for detainee victims. He made a point of saying that he was not talking about reparation, but compensation for this abuse. But what the president is being asked is to make sure that any breakdowns in the chain of command are quickly corrected. Especially whether there's any systemic culture of torture in how US interrogators are dealing with detainees. I expect that this will increase pressure for disclosure on what's happening in Guantanamo, which is an issue the Supreme Court has taken up.

It's not going to be enough for a few privates to be court-martialed. Both members of Congress and world opinion will be looking for an investigation that goes much higher up the chain of command, and that goes deeper into the culture that produced these events.

What significance might this story have for US soldier training methods?

If it turns out that contractors had a role in this meltdown of decency, I think you'll see much more investigation of outsourcing policies and strategies of the military, especially in wartime. I think you'll also see more attention to the training and use of reserve units.

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