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Capitol Hill Sees the Flip Side of a Powerful Warrior

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2004; Page A01

Congress saw a new face of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday.

Summoned to Capitol Hill for a bipartisan trip to the woodshed over the Iraq prison abuse crisis, the man who has spoken so often of transforming the world's largest military testified that he has been trying for "days and days and days" simply to get a CD copy of the Abu Ghraib photographs and video -- but has not been able to find one.

"The disc that I saw that had photos on it did not have the videos on it," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee. All the pictures, both stills and video, have been in the hands of military investigators since January, he told Congress. But the secretary has had trouble getting hold of them.

Rumsfeld testified that he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, finally saw the stills Thursday night, more than a week after CBS broadcast the first images of U.S. soldiers humiliating and threatening naked Iraqi prisoners.

This image of a powerless secretary unable to summon up a cheap piece of plastic in the face of a "catastrophe," as Rumsfeld described the prison scandal, was a long way from the boldly assured Rumsfeld of a year ago. Back then, during the U.S. military's lightning drive on Baghdad, the civilian architect of two wars in two years described a computerized force in which data leapt from soldier to satellite to smart bomb, in which unimaginable firepower was just a few keystrokes away.

Rumsfeld was a sort of Achilles for the Information Age, and his bold assurance won him a place among People magazine's sexiest humans. President Bush nicknamed him "Rumstud."

Like Achilles, he had a vulnerable heel. Rumsfeld returned over and over again to the idea that the military has effectively handled the prison crisis as a criminal matter but failed to realize that those pictures were, themselves, high-tech dynamite. One-stripe soldiers could zip the disastrous images through the ether, but the Pentagon could not get them onto Rumsfeld's radar screen at even an 18th-century pace.

"I wish I knew how you reach down into a criminal investigation when . . . it turns out to be something that is radioactive, something that has strategic impact in the world," Rumsfeld said, with unfamiliar helplessness. "We don't have those procedures. They've never been designed. We're functioning in a -- with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation, in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had -- they had not even arrived in the Pentagon."

At another point, he said: "We've been trying to get one of the discs for days and days and days. And I'm told by General [Lance] Smith that there were only a couple of these, that they were in the criminal investigation process. And we finally -- Dick Myers and I finally saw them last night."

Even then, he was not sure how many discs exist or why his disc did not have the video on it.

"I checked with General Smith, and he indicates he does have a disc with the videos on it," Rumsfeld said. "I don't know if they're -- that means there's two discs with all these photographs, or if the photographs are the same and one disc doesn't have the video."

The embattled secretary looked weary, especially toward the end of about six hours of scoldings, grillings, admonishments and questions from both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate side and on the House side about whether he has considered resigning. He was flanked by uniformed generals, but when he tried to pass an uncomfortable early question to the nearby brass, Rumsfeld was dressed down by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"No, Secretary Rumsfeld, in all due respect, you've got to answer this question," McCain said. "This is a pretty simple, straightforward question. Who was in charge of the interrogations?"

And with the likes of Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) still ahead, Rumsfeld's seat only got hotter.

At moments, the old Rumsfeld flashed through, as he corrected the premises and disputed the conclusions drawn by especially hostile interrogators. But then Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) couched one of the most pointed attacks of the day in a sort of "What ever happened to Rumstud?" tone, and there was nothing the secretary could do but sit for it.

"It was moms and dads from homes who had to write me and tell me that their kids weren't getting the proper body armor," Taylor said.

"Then it was David Kay, a Bush appointee, who had to tell me in Baghdad that because of a lack of manpower, huge ammunition caches were left unguarded in Iraq . . .

"It was a National Guard unit from home, shortly before Christmas, that showed me proudly their efforts to make their own up-armored Humvee, because apparently no one above was bothering to tell Congress, which writes the checks for these things, that they needed to be protected . . .

"I mean, you're probably one of the smartest people I know," Taylor continued. "And what's troubling is how someone who is so smart and so detail-oriented, why does it take from January to May for this committee now to find out about" the Abu Ghraib photographs?

In response, Rumsfeld spoke of the 18,000 criminal investigations the Pentagon launches each year. He said he heard "rumors of photographs . . . in that period of January, February, March."

"But I would have believed," Taylor interjected, "that . . . somehow, someone would have seen that it got to you. Because I know you're a smart, detail-oriented guy."

"It wasn't," Rumsfeld said. "It just wasn't."