Rumsfeld in Dog House?
President Bush on Wednesday chastised his defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, for Mr. Rumsfeld’s handling of a scandal over the American abuse of Iraqis held at a notorious prison in Baghdad, White House officials said.
The disclosures by the White House officials, under authorization from Mr. Bush, were an extraordinary display of finger-pointing in an administration led by a man who puts a high premium on order and loyalty. The officials said the president had expressed his displeasure to Mr. Rumsfeld in an Oval Office meeting because of Mr. Rumsfeld’s failure to tell Mr. Bush about photographs of the abuse, which have enraged the Arab world.
In his interviews on Wednesday with Arab television networks, Mr. Bush said that he learned the graphic details of the abuse case only when they were broadcast last Wednesday on the CBS program “60 Minutes II.” It was then, one White House official said, that Mr. Bush also saw the photographs documenting the abuse. “When you see the pictures,” the official said, “it takes on a proportion of gravity that would require a much more extreme response than the way it was being handled.”
Another White House official said, “The president was not satisfied or happy about the way he was informed about the pictures, and he did talk to Secretary Rumsfeld about it.”
The disclosure of the dressing-down of the combative Mr. Rumsfeld was the first time that Mr. Bush has allowed his displeasure with a senior member of his administration to be made public. It also exposed the fault lines in Mr. Bush’s inner circle that have deepened with the violence and political chaos in American-occupied Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has often been at odds with Mr. Rumsfeld, went so far on Tuesday night as to talk about the prison abuse scandal in the context of the My Lai massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children by American troops, a historical reference that was not in the White House talking points that sought to stem the damage from the scandal.
Mr. Powell, in an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” brought up My Lai without prompting, saying that he served in Vietnam “after My Lai happened” and that “in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they’re still to be deplored.”
Other U.S. officials said Rumsfeld and the Pentagon resisted appeals in recent months from the State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority to deal with problems relating to detainees. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged action in several White House meetings that included Rumsfeld, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“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,” said a senior State Department official familiar with the discussions.
But the Pentagon repeatedly failed to act on both requests, said U.S. officials, who are privately furious over a human rights disaster that they believe might have been averted if military officials had acted on their requests.
LA Times adds:
Some lawmakers have suggested that Rumsfeld’s future may be in doubt.
“If it goes all the way to Rumsfeld, then he should resign,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). “Who is in charge?”
Even some congressional Republicans were angry with the Pentagon for failing to prepare them for the abuse revelations. Gathering GOP frustration raises the stakes for Rumsfeld, who is scheduled to testify Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A Rumsfeld resignation would have an enormous political downside, a senior House Republican aide said. It would be viewed as an admission of failure in the middle of a war and an embarrassing concession to Democratic critics during Bush’s reelection campaign, the aide said.
A senior aide to the Senate Republican leadership said he did not think that animosity toward the Pentagon had reached the point that Republicans would call for Rumsfeld’s resignation, but that there was a clear sense that “some heads should roll at the Pentagon.”
CNN tempers the tone, though, with a rather important caveat:
Despite the blunt exchange, however, both Bush and his press secretary, Scott McClellan voiced confidence in Rumsfeld. . . .
While there’s no evidence I’m aware of that anyone at OSD level did anything to create the conditions that led to the prisoner abuses, let alone encourage them, the handling of the information once it became apparent has been amazingly inept. The fact of these abuses became known months ago and became public at least by the end of March. It boggles the mind that they’re still not on top of this one, including going on national television with less command of the facts than readers of The New Yorker.
While controversial, I believe Rumsfeld has been an excellent Secretary of Defense. He’s broken through decades of bureaucratic malaise and made transformation of the force a reality. Unfortunately, he shares his boss’ stubborn refusal to admit mistakes and change course in the face of overwhelming information.
Update: Rob Tagorda analyzes the release of information on the dressing down.