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Rumsfeld's testimony may not save his job or boost U.S. credibility
By Jon Frandsen | GNS
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's appearance Friday before Congress to explain the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was a near-perfect version of the peculiar Beltway ritual of taking responsibility for a terrible problem - but not too much.
Rumsfeld also followed the time-honored path of providing answers, only not too many. He said investigations were still going on to determine what happened.
A full day of testimony before two congressional committees, numerous charts and graphs, and several fierce exchanges provided two results:
- It is still not clear whether the United States has begun to repair the devastating damage done to the nation's reputation and credibility, especially in Iraq. Any lingering gratitude over taking down Saddam Hussein has been all but eliminated by the American torture and abuse of detainees in the same prison where Saddam committed unspeakable crimes against political enemies.
- Rumsfeld's grip on his job as President Bush's chief prosecutor of the war on terror remains tenuous.
``You have got to see how this plays out,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. ``We still don't know how far up the chain of command this goes.''
It was sharp questioning of Rumsfeld, by a frustrated McCain early in the day, that illustrated how there would be little slaking of the thirst for answers to questions about the horrors at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
``What were the instructions to the guards?'' McCain asked Rumsfeld repeatedly, referring to the military police accused of beating, taunting, humiliating and threatening prisoners.
Rumsfeld eventually responded that the matter was still being investigated.
But while many lawmakers were frustrated with the lack of clear answers, Democrats and Republicans praised Rumsfeld for beginning his testimony with a detailed apology and for saying the ultimate responsibility for what has become a global humiliation for the U.S. military belongs to him. ``The ultimate responsibility for the department rests with me,'' Rumsfeld said.
But Rumsfeld also tried to deflect the blame for the failure to appropriately brace the country, president and Congress for the coming outcry.
Not surprisingly, members of Congress repeatedly thumped Rumsfeld for not bringing the details of the torture and abuse to them long before they were made public.
Rumsfeld's defenses were multiple:
- He did not want to ``reach down'' into an active criminal investigation and potentially hurt the outcome.
- The Pentagon had been quite forthright about the abuse, announcing a probe in January and other steps along the way. But he had not seen the shocking photographs and the reports he received did not help him to properly gauge their potentially devastating effect.
``It is the photographs that give one the vivid realization of what actually took place. Words don't do it,'' Rumsfeld said. ``You read that, and it's one thing. You see the photographs ... and you cannot help but be outraged.''
But even though the Pentagon knew for at least a week that CBS and The New Yorker were working on stories that included photographs, he still claimed to be ``blindsided.''
That caused some lawmakers to raise their eyebrows.
There was more serious hedging, however.
Rumsfeld was repeatedly pressed on whether the incidents amounted to guards running amok, or whether they were ``preparing'' prisoners for interrogation.
``I can't conceive of anyone looking at the pictures and suggesting that anyone could have recommended, condoned, permitted, encouraged - subtly, directly, in any way - that those things take place,'' Rumsfeld said.
But the report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that detailed the abuses and gathered the damning photographs and videotapes said many of the beatings were intended to ``soften up'' prisoners before they were questioned.
Military intelligence interrogators ``actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses,'' the report said.
That Rumsfeld could hold his opinion despite Taguba's assertion troubled the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.
``The fact is his opinion runs smack into the Taguba report,'' Levin said. ``He will have to sit in judgment of these people down the line ... and this raised questions about his objectivity.''