- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

What did our important (just ask them) members of Congress know about the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison, and when did they know it?

Several congresspersons conceded yesterday that they knew about the abuses months ago, sort of, when the Pentagon first put out the news that the abuses were under investigation. But they didn’t get excited until they saw the network television technicians arrive on the Hill and start unpacking their cameras.

“A press release from Central Command isn’t good enough,” sniffs Lara Battles, a spokeswoman for Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri. “The Pentagon communicates with the Hill … and that did not occur in this instance.”

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, another Democrat, grumps that he doesn’t “want to be on notice every time there’s a news release.” Anyone else could figure out that if he’s getting wet it’s probably raining, but not our senators. Learning something important from a news conference, Mr. Nelson says, “is not a substitute for congressional notification.”

Teddy Kennedy thinks the Pentagon news about abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison was pretty much a hoot, anyway. The “alleged announcements” in January and March, he says, “were laughable in terms of communicating what was happening to Congress.” Don Nickles of Oklahoma, a Republican, recalls that a general mentioned something in a briefing, but the abuses didn’t make an impression until he saw the photographs in the newspapers and on television.

This is pretty much what the likes of Lindsey Graham and John Warner and Carl Levin said last week when they opened the Senate ring of the congressional circus. So to get it all straight: Congressmen can’t bother with the words in newspapers and magazines, but they understand the pictures in a newspaper or magazine. The abuses aren’t important; what’s important is how Congress gets the word. Congress is the third branch of government, after all, which makes every one of the 535 members of Congress 1/535th of that important one-third, which works out to, hmmmm, well, someone else can do the math. You wouldn’t think such little wheels could make so much noise.

A new Annenberg public-opinion poll, completed Sunday and out yesterday, suggests that a majority of Americans think the Pentagon “covered up” the abuses, but nearly seven out of 10 Americans think Donald Rumsfeld should keep his job. This figure is almost identical to the result of an ABC-Washington Post poll completed earlier (which The Post, leading the media frenzy, relegated to Page 12).

There’s certainly no cover-up; the Pentagon first revealed the abuses on Jan. 12, in a press release that Congress couldn’t bother to read, and followed it up with a March 20 announcement that criminal charges would be brought against six soldiers for “dereliction of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, assault and indecent acts with another.” But the public is so contemptuous of Washington that it assumes that everything wrong will be covered up.

But if there’s no cover-up, there’s certainly a congressional sleepover. “For many politicians,” Kate O’Beirne observes in National Review Online, “the danger posed to our troops by the photos that fuel a murderous hatred pales in comparison to the offense to their self-importance … . In the future, military press releases and announcements should probably be accompanied by personal phone calls to John Warner and Joe Biden and to Martin Frost and Christopher Shays. Other congressmen likewise concerned about missing a media opportunity could sign up for a special call list. They need not be bothered unless pictures are involved.”

President Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld, having run out of people to apologize to, looked over additional photographs yesterday, and the White House said the president reacted with “deep disgust and disbelief” that anyone who wears the uniform would indulge such behavior. Don Rumsfeld should send videos on to the Hill. The congressmen will think they haven’t had such fun since the Elks lodge cut out the blue movies on Saturday night.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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