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Secretary Feels Heat, Buys Time

Times Staff Writers

When Donald H. Rumsfeld was a varsity wrestler at Princeton University, he prided himself on never yielding ground to his opponents. On Friday, Rumsfeld found himself in an unaccustomed position: giving ground by apologizing for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops and his own failure to alert President Bush and Congress to the problem.

But the old Rumsfeld -- Rumsfeld the wrestler -- was on display as well. He insisted that the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison did not stem from broader flaws in the occupation of Iraq. He rebuked Democrats, and a few Republicans, for questions he considered ill-informed.

The result, at the end of a long day in the hearing rooms of Capitol Hill, was something of a standoff. Rumsfeld still had his job as secretary of Defense, but some leading Republicans took note of his warning that more graphic photographs and videotapes from Abu Ghraib might surface. They wondered out loud -- a bad sign in a capital where such questions are normally taboo -- whether Rumsfeld could survive any more revelations.

“We still don’t know what the outcome will be,” said Michael K. Deaver, a former advisor to President Reagan. “I think he’s got an uphill battle. This is about as tough a position as any administration has ever been in.”

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“The key question is the one Rumsfeld posed: Can he still be effective?” said David Gergen, a former advisor to Reagan and President Clinton who now teaches at Harvard University. “It’s on that issue that people are going to wait and see how this plays out. Rumsfeld certainly bought himself some time today.... But he didn’t clear up every mystery.

“It was a strong performance, but not what I’d call a bravura performance,” Gergen said. “He didn’t have an adequate answer for every question.

“The issue remains: Did we somehow create a culture of lawlessness [at Abu Ghraib]?” Gergen asked. “Rumsfeld didn’t do very well answering that one.”

Victoria Clarke, a former Rumsfeld spokesman who has been advising him in the last two weeks, said she considered the Defense secretary’s performance “very strong” but acknowledged that some questions remained unanswered.

“There’s got to be a full-court press to be as transparent as you can be,” she said. “There are huge legal issues involved ... but they know they need to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible.”

Deaver gave Rumsfeld higher marks for his performance in the daylong hearings.

“I think he did pretty well,” he said. “Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘You can’t fool the camera.’ People know Don Rumsfeld’s personality. He has been candid, straight and forthright.... From a credibility standpoint, he did well.”

Rumsfeld’s main point in his testimony was that he accepted “full responsibility” for the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “These events occurred on my watch,” he said. “As secretary of Defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility. It’s my obligation to evaluate what happened, to make sure that those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice, and to make changes as needed to see that it doesn’t happen again.”

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That was a change from Rumsfeld’s initial response to the photographs and accounts of events at the prison, when he sought to deflect questions.

“I’m in the chain of command; I’m not allowed to opine about things like that,” he said in a television interview April 29, when the first images became public.

But even as he accepted the principle of accountability Friday, Rumsfeld irritated some members of Congress when he said he could provide no actual accounting of how things went wrong.

Rumsfeld seemed unsure, in particular, how to handle a question posed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “Who was in charge of the interrogations [at Abu Ghraib]?”

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“I still need to know who was in charge of the guards who committed these obscene acts,” McCain complained after the hearing. “I was unable to get an answer to that question.”

On display was Rumsfeld’s penchant for verbal combat. He insisted that the military chain of command had not failed. He disputed statements that the Pentagon had sought to “suppress” information and asserted that the Abu Ghraib abuses came to light because of military announcements, rather than through news stories.

“The idea that this was a story that was broken by the media is simply not the fact,” he said.

Rumsfeld angrily rejected the suggestion by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that defense officials had resisted prodding by the State Department to correct the failings of the detention system in Iraq. “You’re making a set of conclusions that are just simply not accurate,” he snapped at Kennedy.

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When Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was troubled that the Pentagon had not disclosed the problems and outlined “swift, tough corrective actions,” Rumsfeld replied that what Central Command had done was “just that: swift corrective action.”

Rumsfeld said he could not remember when he told the president about the nature of the offenses. Pressed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) about what he discussed with Bush, Rumsfeld said he was unwilling to discuss a private conversation.

As the day wore on, Rumsfeld seemed to have less and less patience with his questioners.

When Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.) said the issue had special importance because of the large number of troops in the field, Rumsfeld interjected: “You don’t need to tell me where the troops are. I know.” Rumsfeld was impatient, too, with a congressman’s suggestion that it might be wise if the administration used the “rolling of heads” at senior levels to show the world how serious it is about fixing the system that permitted the abuses.

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“I don’t believe it would be right for me to run around looking for scapegoats so you can toss someone over the side ... and say, ‘Let’s heave that guy over the side.’ That isn’t the way we do business in this country.”

Still, some who know him well said this was a changed man.

Clarke, who worked closely with the secretary of Defense for his first two years in office, said the Rumsfeld on display Friday was a contrite, chastised Rumsfeld.

“I thought he was remarkably calm,” she said. “I’ve seen him when he’s cranky and testy. That wasn’t what I saw today.”

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