U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Friday received an earful from U.S. lawmakers who are outraged by the images of Iraqi detainees being abused by U.S. soldiers and the fact that the Bush administration failed to inform them before the scandal became public. Mr. Rumsfeld appeared before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.
The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, opened his hearing with an expression of concern about the impact the scandal may have on U.S. policy abroad.
Senator Warner said,"I can say that the facts that I now have from a number of sources, represent to me as serious an issue of military misconduct as I have ever observed. These reports could also seriously affect this country's relationship with other nations, the conduct of the war against terrorism and place in jeopardy the men and women of the armed forces, wherever they are serving in the world."
Mr. Warner also expressed the concern of many in Congress that lawmakers were not briefed about the existence of the photographs of the soldiers mistreating prisoners before they became public.
Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, was more critical: "I see an arrogance and a disdain for Congress. I see misplaced bravado and an unwillingness to admit mistakes."
Defense officials acknowledged they learned about the incidents of abuse in mid-January and promptly began investigations. Lawmakers say they only became aware of the incidents last week, when the photos surfaced.
Secretary Rumsfeld admitted he should have done more to inform Congress. "Let me be clear: I failed to recognize how it important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels."
Lawmakers demanded to know who in the military chain of command knew about the abuse and condoned it.
At the end of the day, many were not satisfied with the answers Mr. Rumsfeld provided.
Senator John McCain is an Arizona Republican. "I was a bit disappointed that there were answers that said 'well, we are investigating that'. You have got to get it all out. The sooner this is all out, the sooner the American people can recover, and we can heal the wounds that have affected the military and begin restoring our image in the Arab world and focus our attention on a conflict that I believe we must win."
A number of congressional Democrats have called for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation in the wake of the scandal. After hearing the Secretary's testimony, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, renewed the call: "I think we need a new beginning. I think we need a new Secretary of Defense."
Asked by Senator Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, whether he could still perform his duties effectively, Mr. Rumsfeld said if he felt he could not be effective he would resign "in a minute", as he put it. But he said he would not step down if, in his words, "people are trying to make a political issue out of it".