Just a few weeks ago, Congress was pushing hard to get to the bottom of the prison abuse scandal in Iraq. Top military officials and witnesses were being hauled up to Capitol Hill, where senators took the rare step of swearing them in amid a lineup that a senior Pentagon official said “made them look like criminals.”
Now, with a delayed military investigation eating into the calendar, momentum has distinctly slowed at a time when the political calendar -- with two major party conventions and a fall election -- is growing more complicated.
The prospect of bombshells and damaging investigative reports coming out during the height of the political campaign or around the conventions is a concern for both the Bush administration and the Republicans who control both houses of Congress. But complicating it all is the contentious case of documents allegedly missing from an investigative report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba on abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
If one Republican senator has his way, the lull in the prison investigation won’t last.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been holding off on further grilling of Pentagon managers and field generals until his committee gets a report overseen by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay on the abuse of Iraqi detainees by American troops.
But Capitol Hill sources say Warner doesn’t plan to wait much longer. Over the next three weeks, he is expected to hold a series of hearings -- just before the Democratic and Republican conventions kick off the political season and the usual August congressional recess.
If the Fay report -- delayed perhaps until August while a higher-ranking general appointed to finish it has a chance to complete his work -- comes out in the heat of a political campaign, the hearings will go on despite the potential impact on the presidential election campaign, Warner said in a brief interview.
“I will not let politics deter me,” he said.
It remains uncertain whether Warner’s will alone can keep the detainee abuse scandal in the spotlight during the height of a close presidential election. But with the scandal marking a defining issue of his tenure as chairman and with the backing of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Warner has expressed his determination to forge ahead.
Democrats want to go beyond committee hearings, creating either an independent commission to investigate detainee abuse or a special board of inquiry with subpoena powers, the latter of which could act during the fall campaign season.
Warner warned Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a letter last month that he planned to call as many as a dozen administration and military officials to testify, in what Senate sources said then would be as many as seven hearings. Among those on alert for a possible appearance, Warner wrote: L. Paul Bremer III, until recently the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq; Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith; Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes Jr.; Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, director of intelligence for U.S. operations in Iraq; and Fay.
Among the other topics considered likely to come up is a Sept. 14 memo signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the top ground commander in Iraq, authorizing as many as 30 interrogation tactics for detainees at Abu Ghraib -- some later rescinded -- that included the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners.
Feith, a conservative lightning rod, is likely to face scrutiny about his role as a result of a recently released memo on interrogation techniques by Rumsfeld. In the memo, Rumsfeld wrote to Haynes that he had discussed the techniques with Feith.
Before the release of the memo, senators were unsure they had cause to call Feith to testify.
“Now we do have a reason, because he was involved in the policy,” a Senate source said on condition of anonymity.
Pentagon officials insisted that they had not delayed the investigations. Asked about a timetable for the Fay report, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters last week that it depended on the scope of work.
“The timetable is: When it’s complete, we’ll provide it,” Di Rita said.
Relations have soured between the Pentagon and senators who insist that they have been denied key documents in the investigation promised since May.
Among the missing documents, according to a Senate source, are two of 12 enclosures attached to a transcript of an interview of Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade at Abu Ghraib. One of them, Enclosure 9, addresses how the unit handled reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The other, Enclosure 11, outlines at least three investigations for possible nonjudicial punishment after the alleged abuse of two girls, ages 13 and 14, taken to the prison in the middle of the night by CIA agents, the Senate source said.
However, Pentagon managers insist there are no missing documents. They said there was a perception that documents were missing because some items were not provided to the committee when they were publicly accessible -- such as the Army’s field manual, later provided on a computer disk at the committee’s request, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
References to some annexes in the main report were simply mislabeled, making it look as if they weren’t there, he added.
To prove the Pentagon’s point, defense officials went so far as to have Lt. Col. Michael Kluka, special assistant to the staff judge advocate, certify in a letter that the Pentagon had sent a complete copy of the master disk of the Taguba report, including all 106 annexes.
“We’ve provided them everything we had,” Whitman said. “They’ve always had them.”
Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.