Archive for Saturday, May 15, 2004

Rumsfeld’s plan for abuse crisis: Focus on low-level prison guards

May 15, 2004


— Donald H. Rumsfeld appears to have settled on a strategy for trying to overcome the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, which threatens America's prospects for success in Iraq as well as his tenure as defense secretary.

Rumsfeld is trying to focus the public spotlight on the upcoming courts-martial of lower-level soldiers implicated in the abuse, even as lawmakers ask if anyone up the chain of command is culpable.

Meanwhile, U.S. commanders in Iraq are trying to improve prison conditions -- and unload Iraqi prisoners -- as fast as they can.

Rumsfeld also is trying to strike back at critics who say, incorrectly in his view, that the Bush administration's overall policy on treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism created a climate in which abuse could happen. He has called such assertions "garbage."

Congress is pushing ahead with hearings. At issue specifically is what guidance top brass gave to the interrogators in the field about allowable techniques, and whether military police prison guards were encouraged to "soften up" prisoners.

Rumsfeld may yet resign, even though President Bush has made clear he wants the feisty Pentagon chief to stay. What Rumsfeld must weigh is whether his departure would help Bush in an election year. Or whether it would enhance the United States' long-term chances for success in building a democratic Iraq.

During an eight-hour visit to Iraq on Thursday, highlighted by a quick tour of the drab Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld gave every indication that he intended to try to move beyond the controversy and that he believed he had set the correct course to get there.

"We'll get through this tough period," the 71-year-old defense chief told a roomful of soldiers who are among the hundreds who operate and protect the prison.

By his words he seemed determined to lift the spirits of those whose assignment -- never easy to begin with -- now carries the stigma of association with the scandalous actions of previous prison guards.

Both Rumsfeld and his most senior military adviser, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers, made clear during their joint appearance in Iraq that they are counting on the military justice system to mete out the appropriate punishments.

In all, seven soldiers who were Abu Ghraib guards face criminal charges. An additional six have been given official reprimands, which will effectively end their Army careers, and one was given an official admonishment.

While the justice system handles the abuse cases, Rumsfeld has made clear he was eager to see changes at Abu Ghraib.

During a tour of the prison compound on Thursday, the two-star general in charge, Geoffrey Miller, told Rumsfeld that he has made many changes in the past month, including thinning out the prisoner population.

Miller also has established a "visitor's center" at Abu Ghraib -- a collection of wooden huts where relatives can spend up to 30 minutes speaking with a detainee from behind a plexiglass shield.

Even as such measures are taken, Rumsfeld leaves no doubt that he expects more bad news to emerge.

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