Bush team gives firm backing to Rumsfeld

Posted in United States | 10-May-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

But criticism mounts from both parties as new disclosures loom

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration signaled strong support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the weekend, apparently improving his prospects for political survival. But the administration was also bracing for the expected release of more gruesome photos and inflammatory details of prisoner abuse in Iraq.

Anger and irritation continued to pour forth from legislators of both parties over abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and some other U.S.-operated detention centers. Democrats in particular demanded an accounting from the highest levels necessary, even including President George W. Bush.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the abuse reflected a "policy which goes right up to the Pentagon and perhaps even beyond."

Bush himself, Levin suggested on NBC-TV, "helped to create the atmosphere" for ignoring Geneva conventions and military rules in an urgent quest for information.

Most Republicans continued to stand by the defense secretary, but a few seemed miffed and offended at Vice President Dick Cheney's suggestion that Rumsfeld, a longtime friend and colleague, should be spared further criticism.

One Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, cautioned against supposing that the worst of the scandal was over. "This is deeper and wider than I think most in this administration understand," he said on CBS-TV. Still, a new opinion poll showed broad support for Rumsfeld. Along with the clear backing of the White House and his own apology and show of contrition Friday before a Senate committee - "I take full responsibility," he said - Rumsfeld's chances of riding out the crisis appeared improved.

Rumsfeld told the Senate panel that photos and videos yet to be released - apparently depicting rape, a severe beating and a smiling soldier posing with a dead body - were more "blatantly sadistic" than those already seen. It was unclear how damaging these new images might be.

Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that the Pentagon would soon give Congress new abuse photos, which legislators would be allowed to view in private.

But another Republican on the committee, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said that any additional photos should be released as soon as possible. "If there's more to come, let's get it out," he said.

The New Yorker magazine released a photo on Sunday of U.S. guards using large dogs to intimidate a naked and cringing prisoner; the reporter Seymour Hersh, who in an article a week earlier revealed aspects of the abuse, said that other photos he had seen indicated the man had been badly bitten. The latest photos, he added, showed a military police unit at Abu Ghraib different from the one implicated earlier.

At least seven people have been criminally charged and six reprimanded by the military. As many as 30 investigations are now under way, Hagel said.

The Washington Post on Sunday quoted several senior U.S. military officers as saying that the United States was winning tactically in Iraq but losing strategically -- prevailing militarily but failing, perhaps disastrously, to win Iraqis' support.

Wesley Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO and an erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate, said on NBC-TV that "a failure of leadership" over Iraq "goes right to the top." He said that he would now place as better than 50-50 the possibility of "a catastrophic early end to this mission" -- a withdrawal under heavy pressure.

"It would be very patriotic if Secretary Rumsfeld resigned," Clark said.

The Army Times and affiliated private newspapers widely circulated in the military, was to say in an editorial on Monday that Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were responsible for "a failure that amounts to professional negligence" and that "accountability is essential, even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war," CBS reported.

But Warner strongly warned against such change.

For Rumsfeld to step down amid continuing hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the middle of an election year, could cause grave domestic and international uncertainty, he said. "We've got to be careful," said Warner, a former navy secretary. "We've got to be cautious."

He praised Rumsfeld as strong and effective and said, "I can continue to work with him, I assure you."

It was not clear who might replace Rumsfeld - who became the youngest defense secretary ever in 1974, and returned in 2001 to become the oldest - if he were to leave office. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, a strong backer of the Iraq war, is in many ways as controversial as Rumsfeld. A switch to someone else, however, may be viewed as a retreat from the pursuit of goals in Iraq that Bush has promised vigorously to continue.

A new ABC News-Washington Post opinion poll found unusually strong public support for Rumsfeld: only 20 percent of those surveyed said he should step down, to 69 percent who believe he should remain in office.

Bush said Thursday that Rumsfeld retained his confidence, and later, two top aides signaled firm support.

"The president strongly supports Donald Rumsfeld and so do his colleagues, and I strongly support him," Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, told The New York Times. She took exception to a report saying that she might not be unhappy to see Rumsfeld leave.

And Cheney bluntly urged the defense secretary's critics to cease and desist. "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had," said Cheney, a former defense secretary himself, through a spokesman. "People ought to let him do his job." That drew an unusually tart rejoinder from Graham of South Carolina.

He called Cheney's comment "inappropriate" at a time investigations were still under way. "As to the White House," Graham added, "please don't say things like 'get off his back.' We just don't want a bunch of privates and sergeants to be the scapegoats here," Graham said, without pointing a finger at anyone. "This is about system failure, this is about felony offenses."

Virtually all the senators insisted that an overwhelming majority of American soldiers would not have behaved as those at Abu Ghraib did.

"The tragedy of this is, it goes directly to the heart of how we hope to win the war against terror and what we're hoping to accomplish in Iraq," Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, said on Fox News.

"And that is that we are morally superior to our adversaries," he continued. "We don't kill women and children. We don't torture people."