Sticking to their guns

Print edition : June 04, 2004

Even as several Republican and Democrat lawmakers and people at large react critically to the Abu Ghraib prison incidents and hold the Pentagon responsible, the Bush administration stands by the Defence Department and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

in Washington

THE humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison by United States guards, whether they belonged to the Army, private security agencies or the intelligence agencies, has been seen in most of the country as an outrage for which a price will have to be paid.

President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon on May 10.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

No amount of sidetracking the issue by the civilian authorities and the Pentagon top brass is working or will work down the line when more shocking images and videos of abuse are exposed. Much of the shock and disbelief in the U.S. has come from Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats have wasted no time in criticising the Pentagon for not bringing the serious and sensitive issue to the attention of lawmakers and for trying to get off the hook by suggesting that the issue of abuse and the action taken by the Pentagon's powers that be were actually publicised in the form of a "press release" as early as January.

"Any public announcement in January is a joke," said the South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham who along with other lawmakers have made the point that the Pentagon cannot get away by pointing to a press release that it routinely issues. "I don't want to be on notice every time there is a press release," remarked Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, stressing that press releases and media conferences were not substitutes for direct congressional notification.

Neither have the lawmakers been happy with some of the recent antics of the Pentagon. While on the one hand senior officials in the Defence Department have said that they were willing to come before congressional committees, the Pentagon insisted on "packing" a witness list when the Senate Armed Services Committee wanted to hear first hand from Major General Antonio Taguba, the first senior officer who probed the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. Apparently, the Defence Department insisted that the Under Secretary of Defence for Intelligence and another senior military officer appear along with Gen. Taguba. The idea was not to expose Gen. Taguba for a lengthy period of time and alone, critics alleged.

The Pentagon has tried to get out of the current mess of its making by saying that it had not tried to conceal the issue, rather that it had made the allegations public on January 16 and followed it up with an announcement on March 20 that six soldiers had been charged. But what was missing in all the claims was the nature and extent of prisoner abuse and how far up the chain of command was involved in the incidents and who led the interrogation at Abu Ghraib. Supporters of the administration, in Congress and elsewhere, argued that detractors were making a "big deal" and putting pressure on Rumsfeld to resign and that in the absence of visual evidence there would be no such pressure on Rumsfeld to quit. But this is precisely the point of the images - as Republican Senator John McCain eloquently put it, a picture speaks a thousand words.

BUT what was shown on the television channel CBS' "60 Minutes II" programme was explosive and if the Pentagon and the Bush administration believed that they could get away with some fuzzy explanation, they were wrong. But the television network was not the only thing that rattled the Republican administration, for soon other images and investigative writing flooded the media. And the White House knew that the problem went far beyond allowing soldiers to take digital cameras along with them to battle stations - it was systematic and gross abuse that was sadistic and criminal.

The worst part of the unfolding drama was that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had brought to the attention of the administration a pattern of abuse in Iraqi prisons. A confidential report was first presented to coalition authorities in Baghdad on February 12. The ICRC Report makes the point that the prison facilities in central and southern Iraq depicts "a consistent pattern with respect to times and places of brutal behaviour during arrest". The ICRC Report stressed that a variety of harsh treatment was employed, ranging from insults, threats and humiliations to physical and psychological coercion "which in some cases was tantamount to torture".

But the administration and the Pentagon have steadfastly maintained that what took place at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident and did not amount to a pattern and that those accused would be held accountable. Even Gen. Taguba, who said that what had come about was the result of poor leadership, training and supervision, maintained that it could not be traced back to one overarching policy. "We did not gain any evidence where it was an overall military intelligence policy of this sort," he told lawmakers.

Members of Congress could not be easily satisfied, especially when serious issues are before them that have brought about dishonour and disgrace to the country as a whole. Many wanted to know not just who the abused persons were, but how far up or down the military chain of command was aware of the goings on. "I cannot help but suspect that others were involved - that military intelligence personnel were involved or people further up in the chain of command - in suggesting to the guards specific types of abuse designed to break these prisoners," Republican Senator Susan Collins remarked.

Major General Antonio Taguba.-STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP

Some in Congress asked for Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation right away. Others called on the President to dismiss his Defence Secretary. The critical assessment was that the issue was far too important for the administration to sit on because what was at stake were the serious wounds inflicted on the Iraqi people as a whole, the continuing traumatisation of the affected persons, the angry response in the Arab world and utter dismay among friends and allies the world over. The administration knows that it has a big problem on its hands, but still thinks that it can ride out of the storm.

Lawmakers such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senior Senator Edward Kennedy were publicly "gunning" for Rumsfeld. Privately, several others came to the conclusion that if President George W. Bush was to come clean on the issue, he would almost certainly have to dismiss his entire team, including Rumsfeld, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers and any senior military and civilian officer involved in the overseeing of the prisons system in Iraq, especially those in charge of interrogations.

The second message from Capitol Hill was equally clear: for the U.S. to come clean in the episode, the Pentagon has to come to terms with the remaining images and video footage. Lawmakers cutting across party lines said that the Defence Department would be better off making the remaining photographs and video footage public - the essential point being that the Pentagon's public relations exercise relating to the first set of images was a major disaster, to say the least.

Apparently, political reasons lay behind the slow response of the administration and the White House to calls to dismiss Rumsfeld and their subsequent support to the beleaguered Defence Secretary.

The White House and the powers that be were also looking at public opinion and must have been gratified that in spite of the revulsion at the images, 70 per cent of U.S. citizens, according to one survey, said that Rumsfeld need not resign. But overall, there is no question that the prisoner abuse issue has affected the popular support for the administration's Iraq policy and the approval ratings of the President, both of which have taken a beating in recent days and are at an all-time low.

The White House was studying the political situation on Capitol Hill, especially among the Republicans, to see if any action against Rumsfeld was needed. It was a major relief, when during his back-to-back sessions with the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, no lawmaker publicly called on the top civilian Pentagon official to quit though the exchanges between Rumsfeld and members were testy at times. Republicans such as Senator McCain expressed frustration several times that the Defence Secretary was not answering pointedly to the questions posed, particularly ones that related to the chain of command, in the context of interrogations.

When the White House realised that Republicans in the House and the Senate were standing behind it by not calling on Rumsfeld to resign, it decided to go all out and pitch for the Defence Secretary. Starting with Vice-President Dick Cheney, who said that Rumsfeld was the best Defence Secretary the U.S. has ever had, the basic message was simple: Rumsfeld had the full confidence of the President.

But what was amazing - and appalling - was the way in which Bush defended his Defence Secretary. "You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror. You are doing a superb job. You are a strong Secretary of Defence and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude," the President said in comments that might come to haunt his re-election campaign.

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