Plain talk from GOP senator

Crime, Law and JusticeDefenseNational GovernmentGovernmentArmed ForcesJustice SystemPolitics

WASHINGTON -- Twenty years ago, a young military lawyer defending an Air Force pilot on a drug charge landed himself on 60 Minutes, exposing widespread flaws in the Air Force drug-testing system that led to an overhaul of the program.

Today, the same country lawyer with the soft Southern drawl and sharp wit is again making national headlines by raising provocative questions about a major military scandal. But now, Lindsey Graham is a U.S. senator from South Carolina, and he wants answers about a far more explosive case, the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

As the scandal unfolds, Graham, at 48 the only senator who serves in the National Guard or reserves, is emerging as one of the most outspoken Republican critics of the Bush administration's handling of the crisis.

Graham, a first-term senator who occupies the seat once held by South Carolina legend Strom Thurmond, has harshly scolded military officials and Pentagon leaders for failing to tell President Bush and Congress of the suspected abuses earlier. He has openly expressed concern that the U.S. mission in Iraq could fail.

And it was the boyish Graham, during a tense moment at a televised Capitol Hill hearing last week, who asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld the questions on the minds of many people.

"Do you believe, based on all the things that have happened and will happen, that you're able to carry out your duties in a bipartisan manner?" Graham asked. "And what do you say to those people who are calling for your resignation?"

Graham, who served four terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2002, is perhaps best known for his role as one of the 13 "House managers" in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

But it is another kind of legal experience -- his service as an Air Force lawyer, an Air National Guard judge advocate during the Persian Gulf war and now a colonel and an Air Force Reserve appellate judge -- that fuels his interest in the current crisis.

That early drug case, when one man's misfortune exposed a broader problem in military policy, keeps recurring to Graham as he studies the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"That experience stuck with me and showed that big systems can get out of control and that goodhearted people usually make it right, and you've got to fight and take a risk," Graham said in an interview yesterday. "It was my job to fight and question the system."

That task could not be more important now, he said, as the military prepares to try seven low-ranking soldiers -- the first, Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, 24, next week -- on criminal charges that might reflect a much broader breakdown in leadership.

"If these people were directed or encouraged to do abusive things," Graham said, "then the ones who did the directing or encouraging could be legally liable. We have to be willing to look at that."

Graham periodically reports for duty as a judge, but, as a member of Congress, he cannot be activated. A 1999 Defense Department directive prohibits lawmakers and other top government officials from being called to active duty. Although the military does not bar lawmakers from volunteering, it has long discouraged them from doing so.

Three other members of Congress, all of them Republicans, are in the National Guard or reserves: Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, an Army reservist; Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, a Navy reservist; and Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, a National Guardsman.

Graham's expertise in military law could serve him well as Congress investigates the prison abuse scandal. After his stint as an Air Force defense attorney, Graham was transferred to Germany, where from 1984 to 1988 he was the Air Force's chief prosecutor in Europe.

Later, after going into private practice, Graham was activated for Air National Guard duty in South Carolina as a judge advocate during the gulf war, when his duties included briefing soldiers about the laws of armed conflict.

In Congress, Graham has been a strict and steady conservative who joins most of his party in opposing gun control and abortion rights, and favors amending the Constitution to outlaw desecration of the flag.

But throughout his career, he has flashed an independent streak that -- along with a gift for the sharp sound bite -- has often landed him in the news.

Elected to the House during the Republican takeover of 1994, Graham eventually rebelled against his leadership and helped foment an abortive coup against Speaker Newt Gingrich.

During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Graham surprised many by breaking with his party to oppose one of the articles. When some Republicans were calling the Monica Lewinsky scandal a constitutional crisis, Graham sounded a note of caution, wondering aloud whether it was Congress' role to scrutinize the president's sex life: "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?" he asked

Graham also showed his maverick streak during the 2000 election, when he became a high-profile spokesman for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the fiercely independent Republican who challenged Bush unsuccessfully for the party nomination.

McCain, a Naval Academy graduate who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, also sharply questioned Rumsfeld about the chain of command at Abu Ghraib.

In a chamber full of senators who favor long-winded speeches sprinkled generously with oratorical flourishes, Graham talks quickly and plainly. He likes to start sentences with "Long story short" before delivering one of his characteristically snappy lines.

Typical was his response last weekend to reports that Vice President Dick Cheney had called on critics to leave Rumsfeld alone and let him do his job.

Graham bristled.

"As to the White House, please don't say things like you should get off [Rumsfeld's] back," Graham said testily on NBC's Meet the Press. "Nobody is on his back. We have an independent duty to look at this."

Such frank talk makes Graham a sought-after source as the prison abuse scandal widens.

After he questioned Rumsfeld last week about his job security, about 40 calls from the news media poured into Graham's office within 30 minutes, said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman.

"I thought it was a fair question," Graham said yesterday. "Any time you're in a situation like this, you need to ask questions that are common sense, and I didn't really care to make a political speech about how bad this is. I wanted to ask a question that went to the heart of the matter."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading