Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, noting that the Pentagon put out a press release in January, says Congress should have been aware of Iraqi prisoner abuse accusations. But congressmen insist they didn’t know because they should have been notified directly by the Pentagon.

“Any public announcement in January is a joke,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said yesterday.

“I don’t want to have to be on notice every time there is a news release,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, adding that press releases and press conferences are “not a substitute for congressional notification.”

Mr. Nelson did not see or hear the January press release, but he said it didn’t communicate the serious nature of the abuse, anyway.

CBS’ “60 Minutes II” broadcast photographs two weeks ago depicting some of the abuse, beginning a continuing scramble to assign blame for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Members of Congress say they were blindsided by the photographs, more of which have leaked since.

In a Senate that has frequently stalled over legislation this year, lawmakers moved quickly to convene hearings on Friday in the Senate Armed Services Committee. The House Armed Services Committee held separate hearings the same day.

Yesterday, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the abuses, joining President Bush in apology. The House passed another version of apology last week.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, is trying to have the complete set of videos and photographs of abuse made available for senators. The Pentagon is prepared to provide the photographs, but Mr. Warner wants to wait until the Senate had a procedure in place to view them.

Several senators have called for Congress to make the photographs public.

“The way the other photos came out was a [public relations] disaster, and was beyond a PR disaster that had an effect on winning the war on terror,” Mr. Graham, a freshman, said.

John Ullyot, a spokesman for Mr. Warner, said the photographs were classified by the Pentagon, and only military officials can decide to declassify and release them.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold another set of hearings today to delve into the report prepared by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba on abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Mr. Rumsfeld has come under fire, with several Democratic lawmakers pointedly asking him whether he should resign. President Bush has said, emphatically and on several occasions, that he will stay in his Cabinet.

Several of the administration’s defenders say the hearings are being driven by sensational and shocking photographs.

“It’s all about the photos. In the absence of pictures, there’d be no calls for his head,” one Senate Republican aide said.

Administration officials have noted repeatedly that they did not try to conceal the issue and in fact made the public aware. The Pentagon said on Jan. 16 that investigations were under way, and on March 20, the Army announced that charges had been filed against six soldiers.

Mr. Rumsfeld said 18,000 criminal investigations were conducted last year and that the Defense Department is treating this as a routine investigation.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said last week that military justice was working ably. “Investigators in Iraq were already conducting a massive, comprehensive, swift investigation that has already resulted in six people being charged with criminal offenses under the Code of Military Justice,” he said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, defended congressional anger at Mr. Rumsfeld, saying that the Pentagon’s “alleged announcements” on Iraqi prisoner abuse, starting in January, were “laughable in terms of communicating what was happening to Congress. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.”

Congressmen are particularly upset that the Pentagon did not indicate how serious the abuse was, or how damaging it would be to the U.S. image overseas.

“They mentioned it. I don’t know any of us knew how significant it was,” said Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, adding that the recently published photographs made that matter clear.

Mr. Nickles said a military general mentioned the abuse in a briefing with lawmakers that Mr. Nickles attended a couple of months ago, but the extreme nature of the abuse was only made clear when news organizations published the photographs.

“A press release from Central Command isn’t good enough. The Pentagon communicates with the Hill, and they know how to,” said Lara Battles, a spokesman for Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “They do it all the time, and that did not occur in this instance.”

She said Mr. Skelton and other congressmen “expect to be notified of important events directly from the Pentagon, not from the news media.”

Les Brownlee, acting secretary of the Army, said at the hearings he regretted not formally notifying Congress of the abuse reports, saying he became aware of the information in January but didn’t think it was big enough to report to Congress.

“I knew that there were reports out there. We had certain basic information. We had conversation with some of the members of your staff. But I wouldn’t suggest that that rises to the level of congressional notification,” he said. “I quite frankly was waiting for more and better information, a better report so we could come and report it to you.”

When the announcement was made in January, most newspapers that covered it ran stories inside their main news sections. Some reporters followed up as details became available, but the story did not capture attention anywhere close to what the photographs did when they were shown on “60 Minutes II” on April 29.

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