WASHINGTON, D.C.— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Friday morning to talk about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, went through the motions of taking responsibility (Rumsfeld: “It took place on my watch”), issued almost perfunctory apologies, and then tried to explain away the Abu Ghraib torture story as old news.
But under questioning, first by John McCain and then by Ted Kennedy, Rummy began to crumble, unable to describe for the senators such basic things as the chain of command and what instructions the guards had been given. Time and again, Rumsfeld returned to the line that this is an old story: “The idea that this is a story broken by the media is simply not the fact.”
As for the issue of U.S. apologies, Rumsfeld said in a petulant tone, “There have been many apologies here today.”
At an briefing just before the hearing began, a spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority said coalition chief L. Paul Bremer knew about the prison abuse and torture in January. “Everyone in the world knew it,” Rumsfeld said. Since then, he claimed, the problem worked its way up the chain of command in a “timely and thorough” manner. All in all, Myers said, the system “works very well.”
But Kennedy told Rumsfeld that his recent actions pertaining to the prison torture amounted to “a public relations plan.” And that’s backed up by what actually happened: It was only after the story broke that the soldiers involved got administrative reprimands, and General Janis Karpinski, the former commander of Abu Ghraib and other prisons, was back in the States in private business. Nobody was in the brig. There were no courts martial in the works.
In fact, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said that only hours before the story broke, Rumsfeld did not mention what was going on in a private briefing before the committee. Since the story had been made public, Myers said, he felt comfortable asking CBS to spare the country the horror by not making public the photos. Myers said he “felt pictures would have a bad result on our troops, perhaps resulting in death.”
Was the torture systemic? Levin pointed out that White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez did not want to conform to the Geneva conventions so as to gain added “flexibility.” Rumsfeld, however, told the senators at Friday’s hearing that prison personnel were told to operate within the Geneva conventions. In the past, however, when questioned about their applicability to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Rumsfeld has shrugged off the Geneva conventions.