With the scandal over the abuse of prisoners in
U.S. military custody in Iraq still growing, the administration of President
George W. Bush appears to be shaken to its very core.
While the immediate question is whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could
be sufficiently persuasive in Congressional testimony scheduled Friday to survive
the fast-spreading calls for his resignation, the larger issue has abruptly
become whether the US occupation of Iraq, for which the administration has just
asked an additional 25 billion dollars this year, is sustainable.
That question was put front and center Thursday by Rep. John Murtha, a conservative
and highly influential Democrat close to the Pentagon. In private meetings earlier
this week, he reportedly told fellow-Democrats that the war was "unwinnable"
and Thursday issued a blistering attack on the administration's strategy and
"miscalculations" on Iraq.
"We either have to mobilize or we have to get out," Murtha declared
in an emotional press conference in which he disclosed the content of a series
of written warnings he had sent to Bush and other top officials since his first
of many visits to Iraq since September last year.
"Today our forces in Iraq are undermanned, under-resourced, inadequately trained
and poorly supervised. There's a lack of leadership, stemming from the very
top," he said, adding that the most recent scandal should result in resignations
"right up the chain of command."
Murtha's fury reflected a growing sense that the administration, whose internal
splits are now more apparent than ever before, has lost its way in Iraq. This
is a point underlined by the unexpected request for 25 billion dollars more
– bringing total spending on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 to 191 billion
That the Bush administration has very little idea about what to do was made
clear by the news – printed in bold across the front pages of the morning's
Washington Post and the New York Times – that Bush had "privately"
scolded Rumsfeld for not warning him about the photographs before they were
While Bush insisted Thursday that the defense secretary will "stay in
my Cabinet," the fact that White House officials, presumably with the president's
authorization, briefed reporters on the "private" dressing-down was
It also encouraged Rumsfeld's State Department rivals to pile on. State officials,
who were also furious that the Pentagon had kept them in the dark about its
own investigation, told reporters that they had repeatedly warned Rumsfeld and
his top aides about problems relating to detainees, not only in Abu Ghraib prison,
but also in Afghanistan and at the detention facility at the US navy base in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"It's something Powell has raised repeatedly – to release as many
detainees as possible – and, second, to ensure that those in custody are
properly cared for and treated," a "senior State Department official"
as telling the Post.
But Rumsfeld, an experienced bureaucratic infighter, was not entirely defenseless.
Without quoting a source, the Los Angeles Times reported a few hours
after the Post went to press that Rumsfeld was informed about abuses
at Abu Ghraib in January and personally told Bush about them shortly thereafter.
That in turn led to embarrassing questions at the White House briefing Thursday
about what Bush had done with that information. The questions echoed those raised
by the revelation just a few weeks ago about what the president had done after
hearing an intelligence briefing on al-Qaeda's intention to hijack airplanes
inside the United States one month before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New
York and the Pentagon.
Both the White House and Rumsfeld are now insisting that they had only been
told about the abuses orally and had never seen the
photographs until CBS' Sixty
Minutes II broadcast them last week.
Whether that explanation will suffice to contain the scandal, however, is highly
doubtful, particularly in light of reports that the photographs may only be
the tip of a very large iceberg.
In an interview on Fox News Wednesday night, Seymour Hersh, the investigative
reporter who broke the
prisoner story in The New Yorker, predicted that "(I)t's going
to get much worse. This kind of stuff was much more widespread....I can tell
you just from the phone calls I've had in the last 24 hours, ...there are other
photos out there. ...There are videotapes of stuff that you wouldn't want to
mention on national television..."
Hersh based his prediction largely on the
53-page report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, parts of which have remained
He investigated the abuses beginning in January, when Rumsfeld was first informed
about them, and finished his report in early March. The report put much of the
responsibility for what had taken place at Abu Ghraib prison on the application
of interrogation tactics used against Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo
against captives in Iraq and Afghanistan itself.
The fact that Rumsfeld – who had the time to attend a festive black-tie dinner
of the White House Correspondents Association Saturday night, two days after
the photos were first aired – admitted to not having read the full report as
recently as Wednesday this week has emboldened those, still mostly Democrats,
who are now calling on him to resign.
But Democrats are not alone. Republican lawmakers have privately told reporters
that they are fed up with his arrogance and inflexibility, particularly on the
issue that Murtha is most angry about – the administration's failure to provide
more troops to secure Iraq, and their own safety, both during and after the
Several leading Republican lawmakers, including some who are considered very
close to the White House, also complained bitterly about not being informed
about the abuses or the investigation in advance.
Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran and senior member of the subcommittee that
deals with Pentagon appropriations, poured scorn on the administration's optimistic
predictions about Iraq.
Without explicitly stating that the war was "unwinnable," he at one
point said the public had turned against it and that it was unlikely the administration
would provide the troops needed to stabilize the situation to such an extent
that other countries would be willing to help out.
While Murtha's angry defection created shockwaves in Congress, a stunning attack
on Rumsfeld by the generally hawkish Washington Post spread through the
capital with unaccustomed force.
Rumsfeld's Responsibility," the lead editorial of the Post put
the blame for the abuse scandal squarely on his shoulders by arguing that his
policies on incommunicado detention and refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions
have created a "lawless regime in which prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan
have been humiliated, beaten, tortured, and murdered – in which, until
recently, no one has been held accountable."
Rumsfeld's statements since the disclosure of the abuses, moreover, suggested
that "(h)is message remains the same: that the United States need not be
bound by international law and that the crimes Gen. Taguba reported are not,
for him a priority. That attitude has undermined the American military's observance
of basic human rights and damaged this country's ability to prevail in the war
on terrorism," the Post observed.