For these vets, Senate abuse probe is personal

One is a former secretary of the Navy. Another survived five years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison cell. A third, the only active reservist in the US Senate, served the Air Force as a prosecutor in Europe. Yet another gets her intelligence on the war direct from constituents serving in Iraq, via e-mail.

This phalanx of Republican senators - John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Susan Collins of Maine - are at the front lines of a bid to pursue the Iraq prison abuse scandal as far up the chain of command as it needs to go.

While powerful GOP leaders in the House have held to a minimum investigation or even talk of the scandal on their side of the Capitol, the Senate Armed Services panel, chaired by Senator Warner, is planning a wide range of hearings, including some with top US officials in Iraq.

It's a perilous tack for a majority party heading into a presidential election year.

"The Democrats on the panel realize that the more focus there is on this, the more it will help [presidential candidate John] Kerry, whether he's ever mentioned or not. That's what makes the motives of Republicans, like Warner, McCain, and Graham, so interesting," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

For Senator Warner, the decision to "get at the facts" of prison abuse, "no matter where they lead," was a deeply personal one. He was shocked both by the vicious character of the abuse and breakdown of regular order, including the failure of the Pentagon to let the panel know it was an issue - even though his panel met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld just hours before images of torture in Abu Ghraib prison were released.

The Armed Services Committee includes other vocal members on the Democratic side, including vets such as West Point graduate and former Army captain Jack Reed of Rhode Island. But analysts say it is the strong stance taken by Warner and other Republicans that's playing a key role, since the party controlling the Senate sets committee agendas.

When Warner was first elected in 1978, nearly 2 in 3 senators had military experience. Now, it's 1 in 3. Warner, who served in both the Navy and the Marine Corps, is one of six World War II veterans now in the Senate. Reserved and courtly, he laces his public statements with terms like duty, honor, and pride. He dismisses the view advanced by some GOP colleagues that the scandal may simply involve seven reservists who went astray. Warner says it's as serious a case of dereliction of duty as he's ever seen in the military.

Top Pentagon and military intelligence officials have already been summoned before his panel to account for it. Future hearings, as early as next week, could include top US officials in Iraq as well as the State Department officials, to discuss concerns they may have voiced to the Pentagon on the treatment of prisoners and the fallout of the scandal abroad. Warner says he aims to "make sure such dereliction of duty never - never - happens again in our proud military."

For Senator McCain, the panel's second-ranking Republican, the stakes are also deeply personal. An early supporter of the war, McCain worries that images of a US guard with a leash on an Iraqi will be seen from Burma to Belarus. He plays down his POW experience as a reason for insisting on punishing those responsible. The damage is to US ability to stand up for human rights, he says.

Senator Graham, a reserve officer of the Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, is a freshman on the Armed Services panel but is quickly emerging as one of the sharpest interrogators in the GOP lineup. "Most senators will stay if they know he's the next questioner," says a top GOP aide.

"The idea of having privates and sergeants take the fall, given what I know, is an injustice," Graham says in an interview. "The Congress needs to show the world that military conduct is answerable to the rule of law and answerable to civilian authority."

Senator Collins, one of three women on the 25-member panel, first encountered the US military in parades in hometown Caribou, Maine, on the shoulders of her father, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. A top Senate staff investigator before becoming a US Senator in 1996, Collins has also conducted many oversight hearings as chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs.

In her view, it's "very difficult" to accept the view that the case involves only a small number of prison guards. "It's too bizarre and too calculated to offend Muslim men. I don't have the evidence yet, but all of my instincts tell me that there is more to this story," she says in an interview.

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