Congress toughens war oversight role

Scale of the prison scandal, plus concern about irrelevance, force lawmakers to tighten monitoring.

Despite genuine outrage over the images of torture in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, the GOP-controlled Congress is resisting using its oversight powers to ramp up a full-blown investigation.

Since declaring a war on terror after Sept. 11, the Bush administration has enjoyed an almost complete absence of oversight hearings on White House conduct of the war. From quick approval of the resolution to use force in Iraq to easy votes on "emergency" spending requests, Congress has backed the White House, even in the face of what both sides of the aisle dubbed excessive secrecy and contempt for Congress's oversight role.

But the grim images from a prison in Baghdad are changing that calculus. On Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was grilled for more than six hours before House and Senate panels. The Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees are preparing follow-up hearings as early as this week.

Even more than graphic nature of the images, the scandal highlights how irrelevant Congress has become in the conduct of the war. Many senators reserved their sharpest rebukes for Mr. Rumsfeld's failure even to inform them that there was an issue of prison abuse or that images of it were about to run on national television just hours after the secretary met in a closed session with members of the panel.

It was a humiliating reminder that Congress is often irrelevant in wartime, but rarely as obviously as the war in Iraq. "That's why Congress is usually so angry when a war is over," says Senate historian Richard Baker, citing the precedents of World War II and the Vietnam War. After both wars, Congress voted itself increased powers against the executive branch.

Now, the pace and pressure of the coming hearings will be key in determining just how aggressive Congress is in forcing changes in the administration's war policy - or in changing the tenor of dealings between the White House and Capitol Hill.

"This is what comes of not bringing Congress into the loop," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at the Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Still, Mr. Baker adds that other considerations may put the brakes on an all-out investigation: "Their aggressiveness is self-limiting, because they don't want to undermine the president - or themselves - in the next election."

Both Democrats and Republicans are now calling for full disclosure of photographs and videos related to prisoner abuse. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the explosive nature of these photos," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina.

Some of the toughest questions are coming from senior Republicans and Democrats who have been strong supporters of the war, especially members of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former secretary of the Navy, called the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners "as serious an issue of military misconduct as I have ever observed."

Others worried about the fallout both in terms of US public opinion and prospects for a postwar peace. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican on the Armed Services panel, warned that "unless the issue is quickly resolved, with full disclosure, immediately," Americans may turn away from the war, as they did from the war in Vietnam. Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, a supporter of the war, warned that without a significant shift in strategy, the war may now be "unwinnable."

A key concern of many lawmakers is that sanctions not be limited to a few scapegoats in the lowest ranks. One line of questioning that emerged last week concerned the control that private contractors at Abu Ghraib may have had over interrogations and the conditions of detainees.

In Friday's hearing, Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island called out of the audience Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, who was not scheduled to be a witness, to answer direct questions on whether the Pentagon had approved a policy of using military police and detention operations to "enable" interrogations, including the use of torture. Democrats are urging chairman Warner to call a separate oversight hearing on this issue, with Mr. Cambone as a witness.

The Senate Foreign Relations committee is also expected to step up an aggressive series of hearings on postwar planning and transition. The committee raised questions about prison conditions a couple of months ago, "but the Pentagon did not get back with an answer," says Andy Fisher, committee spokesman.

On the House side, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, is urging tough oversight hearings on the role of private contractors in prisoner abuse. The committee held an oversight hearing on overbilling of the military by contractors in March, but has so far not scheduled hearings on a role they may have had in the prison scandal.

"I think there were private contractors along with the military involved in this, and the military cannot bring them before any military tribunal to hold them accountable. I think we have a very big problem here, aside from the issue of prisoners," says Representative Waxman.

While he credits panel chairman Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia with conducting the first oversight hearings on the role of private contractors in the war, he says he is disappointed that the Republican leadership does not think that the time is right to take up the issue again.

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