- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The House Armed Services Committee chairman yesterday said the ongoing Senate hearings into prisoner abuse in Iraq are hurting the U.S. military’s ability to wage the war.

“We’ve got 135,000 kids over there that need leadership, and their leadership can’t be dragged back to Washington every couple of days to focus on seven people. And that’s what’s happened,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican.

Mr. Hunter said he plans to tell senators and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, in particular, that he thinks their investigation is “disserving our military operation in theater.”

“Those people are now being pulled out of those battlefield positions and brought over to continue to hammer on an investigation, which already encompasses six full investigations in which the seven bad apples who have been focused on so far will end up writing books, being well-publicized,” said the Vietnam War veteran, who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 75th Army Rangers.

Mr. Warner, Virginia Republican, refused to address Mr. Hunter’s charges.

“I would suggest he put that comment to the secretary of defense and allow him to answer it,” said Mr. Warner, who defended his decision to hold the series of hearings.

“When this situation broke, I felt it was the responsibility of the Congress, a co-equal branch of government, to start hearings,” Mr. Warner said.

He pointed to a letter he sent Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week, telling him that the Senate committee would schedule hearings based on the availability of witnesses and offering to allow witnesses to teleconference from overseas.

The Senate committee has heard from Mr. Rumsfeld, five generals and other civilians from the Defense Department and has a hearing scheduled for today with Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command.

“I learned from the department that General Abizaid had been in town for several days. He was here for a commander’s conference, so he could be available,” Mr. Warner said.

Ever since photos first aired on television showing U.S. military police abusing Iraqi prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib prison, the Senate has taken the lead in investigating the extent of abuse and whether it was ordered by high-ranking officials. The House committee held a public hearing with Mr. Rumsfeld and, yesterday, held a closed-door hearing with Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who has produced a report on the abuses.

Mr. Hunter, who spoke after the closed-door hearing, accused the press of obsessing over the persons responsible for the abuses. He said reporters have “given more attention to these seven people and what they did than to the invasion of Normandy.”

Democrats dismissed that charge.

“I wasn’t alive then, and I don’t know that Duncan was,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat. “I don’t know that that’s correct.”

She also said that requiring generals to return to the United States to testify won’t hurt the war effort and that some lawmakers hope it actually will help because, “if America is seen to be taking this seriously, it will stem some of the damage this has caused” to the way the world views America.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said, “It’s a very big story … that we need to pay attention to and get to the bottom of.”

He added that most of the troops’ behavior is exemplary and, therefore, the coverage of the abuse is “disproportionate,” but said that is always how the press works.

“Negative and unusual gets covered; positive and usual does not,” he said.

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat and a top member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the concern over generals’ testimony is unfounded because they come back from time to time anyway, and the committees can accommodate their schedules.

Mr. Spratt said he has told Mr. Hunter that the House should have an independent investigation that parallels the military investigation into prisoner abuse in Iraq that already identified the seven soldiers and 17 superiors.

“We should call witnesses up and down the chain of command,” Mr. Spratt said.

Many Republicans weren’t willing to go as far as Mr. Hunter, although they did say lawmakers should be cautious on the abuse issue.

Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican, said people should remember that the investigation into the abuse scandal has only begun.

“I’ve noticed among my colleagues and the major media there’s a lack of patience,” he said.

Rep. Ed Schrock, Virginia Republican, said he could see how repeatedly calling generals back to talk about the abuse could effect the war effort.

But he added that allowing members to hear from the people that are out there every day is probably a good thing and could cut down on the “rhetoric” heard around the Capitol on the topic. He said hearing from these leaders could reduce “rumors” and “bodes well, because maybe it’ll help cut down on some of the comments that have been made” that can hurt troops and their families.

Mr. Hunter had Mr. Rumsfeld give a closed-door briefing to House members yesterday afternoon to do just that. During the three-hour meeting, Mr. Rumsfeld and top defense officials briefed Republicans and Democrats and answered a slew of questions.

Mr. Hunter said the secretary covered the recent discovery of a sarin gas bomb and the military’s requirements for armor in Iraq, as well as issues concerning Iran and Syria.

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