WASHINGTON — There are a lot of angry people in this town this week. Congress is angry that the Bush administration didn't tell them about the pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse before they aired on television. The president is angry with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not keeping him apprised on the level of problems in the Abu Ghraib prison. And Mr. Rumsfeld is angry at the "Information Age."
But behind all the hot tempers here about the Iraqi prisoner photos and treatment is more than a little absurdity. Rumsfeld's Friday testimony was a mountain range of preposterousness, so full of peaks that the high point was hard to identify. But it might have come in Rumsfeld's railing against photographic technology.
"[P]eople are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had - they had not even arrived in the Pentagon," he said.
Yes, that was the problem. Not the abuse, but the fact that the images of it had been burned onto a disk for quick dissemination. Never mind that the images were months old.
The real issue, however, according to Rumsfeld, was that he and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers had not seen the pictures because they were dealing with an open investigation into the prisoner abuse. That meant they couldn't look at the pictures until the investigation reached up the chain of command to their desks. If only they had been able to see the now infamous shots, they would have understood, he said.
But that argument strains credulity almost beyond belief. General Myers himself said that he had been told in January of "reports of pictures" and even what "the pictures might show." That wasn't enough to tip him off to the problems lying ahead? Yes, there was a press release and a briefing about the investigation, but obviously those things didn't get anyone's attention.
Did they mention the photos or what might be in them, even off the record - a common strategy when one is sitting on explosive information?
So now this town is gabbing away about Rumsfeld's future. In the past few days the conversation has swung back and forth between a question (Should Rumsfeld go?) to a statement (Rumsfeld should go).
But that chatter misses the point. The issue goes beyond him or Myers, further up the chain of command.
Because President Bush acknowledges he had known about the abuse investigation since January, Rumsfeld's and Myers's testimony raises a serious question: When did the president learn about the pictures?
If Myers or Rumsfeld told him they existed in January, the president should have asked immediately for more information and told the world. If Myers and Rumsfeld neglected to tell him about the pictures, meaning that the secretary kept information from the president and the Congress and caused a horrific public relations blunder, how can the president say he won't fire anyone?
And in either event, how could the president, knowing the investigation was under way, continue to make speeches over and over again about how the "torture rooms" or "torture chambers" were closed in Iraq, as he did on Arab television last week even after the scandal had come to light? He had to know those words could come back to hurt US efforts in the region.
It's hard to overestimate the damage the events in Abu Ghraib and the pictures do to the US efforts in Iraq and the Middle East. And the fact that the photos and accounts came from the media first, not the government, only weakens the US position.
Apologies are nice, but they are much more powerful when the offending party is the one that first acknowledges wrongdoing. When someone else "discovers" the problem first, it is always going to look like a coverup to the offended, particularly when the offended is already suspicious.
Many in Iraq and the Middle East don't see America as liberator, they see America as an occupier looking to make a resource-rich corner of the world more pliable to its will.
Last week President Bush told the world that the photos out of Abu Ghraib disgusted him.
"This is not the America I know," he said. That may be so, but it's hardly the point. The president can talk about American values until he's blue in the face. He can speak of freedom and equality. He can flood Iraq with white picket fences and Norman Rockwell imagery. His America is irrelevant in this debate. Much of the world knows or thinks it knows a different America and the pictures out of Abu Ghraib conform too well to that impression.
The anger and finger-pointing, some of it from the president, will continue in Washington. Rumsfeld may or may not lose his job. In the end, it won't matter all that much. The damage is done. The atmosphere in Iraq, which was charged, is now probably poisoned.