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Rumsfeld Is Pentagon’s Best Ever, Cheney Says

Times Staff Writers

Vice President Dick Cheney expressed strong support for besieged Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Saturday and tartly suggested that critics step back and let him carry out his duties.

“As a former secretary of Defense, I think Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of Defense the United States has ever had,” Cheney said through his spokesman, Kevin Kellems. “People ought to let him do his job.”

Kellems went on to call the Washington debate over whether Rumsfeld should resign “overheated and out of sync with the rest of America,” where, he said, Rumsfeld is viewed as a central figure in fighting terrorism. “The guy in glasses they see on television is the guy who’s protecting their children.”

Cheney’s endorsement of Rumsfeld, made in response to a question from The Times, came as Pentagon officials struggled with the problem of how to share with members of Congress and others hundreds more incendiary images of prisoner abuse in Iraq. On Friday, in congressional testimony in which he apologized for the abuse, Rumsfeld warned of more “horror” to come.

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Pressure to brief at least key congressional leaders is growing -- whether by showing them the photos and videos or conveying their nature in some other way.

But defense officials said some of the new photos depict serious criminal acts and that future prosecutions could be jeopardized if the pictures become public. Releasing the photos could also violate provisions of the Geneva Conventions that bar depiction of prisoners of war in humiliating conditions.

“We’re moving forward with some dispatch,” a Pentagon official said. “We’ve got a lot of good ideas and some smart people working on, how do you both protect the things we must protect in this process and ... balance the importance of members of Congress and others understanding the nature of what we’re looking at?

“Whether anybody understands it or even likes it, there are accused, people who have been accused of very serious crimes, depicted in these photographs,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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The official’s tacit appeal for understanding of the legal difficulties presented by the abuse case reflected the fact that the issue is moving on two tracks. It poses a wide array of policy challenges but also thorny political problems for a president who must face voters in November.

And the question of Rumsfeld’s future has implications for both.

In policy terms, Republican aides said Saturday that removing Rumsfeld so close to the election would be a sign of weakness. One White House official said the secretary is “rock solid” with Bush and there is “no daylight between them,” despite recent news accounts that some administration officials are angling for Rumsfeld’s ouster.

An aide to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said there was no interest among House GOP leaders in pushing for Rumsfeld’s resignation.

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“The stakes are too high for a mid-course correction, especially right before the transition,” he said. “Imagine how it would be portrayed by Iraqi insurgents if Rumsfeld resigns.”

On the political front, it was widely taken as a sign that the often caustic secretary was on the way out when top White House aides took the unusual step of revealing to reporters last week that the president was displeased with Rumsfeld’s handling of the abuse cases.

But Rumsfeld’s position, bolstered by disarming appearances before the House and Senate Armed Services committees Friday, grew stronger Saturday as top Republicans concluded that demands for his resignation were not spreading beyond Democrats motivated by election-year politics.

Such attacks were renewed Saturday by retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark in a radio address sponsored by the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry.

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“President Bush made mistake after mistake as commander-in-chief, taking us into a war we didn’t have to wage, alone and under false pretenses and is now managing it poorly,” Clark said.

“The president acknowledged that these acts were ‘stains on our honor,’ ” he said.

GOP strategists said they believed Rumsfeld could survive such partisan broadsides, but they emphasized that the uncertainty surrounding the prison investigation and the likelihood of even more shocking revelations continued to cloud his future.

“He did what he had to do” in his congressional testimony, said a Senate Republican leadership aide who declined to be identified. “But things are not in the clear until the rest of these [investigations] are completed. This is a rough weekend for the administration and the secretary. Things are all right, but nobody’s saying this thing’s over with.”

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Given the tensions that most observers believe exist among the president’s national security team, Bush’s challenge will be finding a way to keep Rumsfeld while mollifying the Defense secretary’s potential rivals inside the White House.

“My bet is that he survives, but his survival will not be pretty,” one former White House official said. “It will be worse if they throw him from the sled. That’s not going to sate the wolves. It just hurts the president if he leaves now.”

To reduce the long-term damage of the scandal, most experts on crisis management say it’s best to get all the bad news out as quickly as possible. But Pentagon officials worry about legal problems that could result if the images are made public -- including trouble for future prosecutions.

More than 1,000 of the newly disclosed pictures and digital video images were viewed and cataloged late last week, some involving sexual situations and physical abuse, defense officials said on condition of anonymity. The video is under the control of military criminal investigators and top brass, a defense official said.

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“This stuff isn’t to be put on the Internet and sorted out after everybody’s taken a look at it,” one defense official familiar with the images said. “It’s going to be kept in the command channels and legal channels only. Why? To protect it as legal evidence and to be sure it’s not taken out of context.”

Nevertheless, the official added, so many soldiers and family members have photos that it’s merely a matter of time before they are widely disseminated in the media.

“We assume that there are plenty of copies of those things made,” the defense official said. “That’s the beauty and the tragedy of this age.”

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Staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.


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