No Good Defense

Donald Rumsfeld likes to be in total control. He wants to know all the details, including the precise interrogation techniques used on enemy prisoners. Since 9/11 he has insisted on personally signing off on the harsher methods used to squeeze suspected terrorists held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The conservative hard-liners at the Department of Justice have given the secretary of Defense a lot of lee-way. It does not violate the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, the lawyers have told Rumsfeld, to put prisoners in ever-more-painful "stress positions" or keep them standing for hours on end, to deprive them of sleep or strip them naked. According to one of Rumsfeld's aides, the secretary has drawn the line at interrogating prisoners for more than 24 hours at a time or depriving them of light.

If it were possible to be a true war god, to aim every arrow that flies, to smite every foe and avenge every wrong, maybe Donald Rumsfeld would be that man. But it is not, and in Greek tragedies the gods themselves are brought low by pride. In Washington, where the assassin's weapon is usually a well-placed leak, Rumsfeld last week was left explaining, with uncharacteristic pitifulness, that he had not seen the actual pictures that appalled the world until eight days after the images first appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes II."

Apparently, even the almighty Rumsfeld could not control everything that happens in the vast American gulag that has sprung up since 9/11 to deal with enemies of the state. In Iraq, Rumsfeld's aides say, the Defense secretary delegated responsibility for interrogation methods to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the ground commander of the occupying forces. The military believes in chains of command, but somehow the chain became twisted and broken as it worked its way down into the prisons where the United States has kept, for too long and in wretched conditions, up to 50,000 detainees. In Baghdad, at Abu Ghraib --a hellhole where Saddam Hussein once tortured his countrymen--someone seems to have delegated authority to the Devil.

President George W. Bush said the photos made him "sick." The effect on Arabs will be to make them want to kill Americans. Is it possible to create an image more offensive to Arabs than a photograph of a female American soldier holding a naked Arab man on a leash? Or a naked Arab man hooded by a pair of woman's underpants? Could even Hollywood have imagined anything more disgusting than Americans leering over a pile of prisoners in simulated sexual positions?

It gets worse. Before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Friday, a chastened Rumsfeld warned that more photos and even videos will surface. (This time the Pentagon itself will release the video to Congress, rather than wait for the inevitable leak.) According to knowledgeable sources, the images include an American soldier having sex with a female Iraqi detainee and American soldiers watching Iraqis have sex with juveniles. Another photo shows a female prison guard gloating over the body of a dead Iraqi.

Who was to blame? A half-dozen sadistic guards who think that rape is a prank? Sex-and-violence-soaked American pop culture that offers up degradation as entertainment on reality shows? Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commander of the benighted 800th Military Police Brigade, charged with guarding the American prisons in Iraq, told NEWSWEEK that troops shifted from her command to military intelligence had been ordered by interrogators to soften up the prisoners, to make them eager to answer questions. But who signed off on that order?

"If there's a failure, it's me," said Rumsfeld to the senators. "These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of Defense I am accountable for them, and I take full responsibility." Rumsfeld offered his "deepest apology" to the victims of abuse and announced that they would be compensated. Would he resign? "It's a fair question," he replied to interrogators during a long, grim day of hearings before both the Senate and House Armed Services committees. "Since this firestorm started, I have given a good deal of thought to the question... If I thought that I could not be effective, I certainly wouldn't want to serve. And I have to wrestle with that."

The former Princeton wrestler may be increasingly tied in knots. There is mounting evidence of abuse in American military and supersecret intelligence prisons around the world. There is also growing evidence that Rumsfeld, or his top deputies and aides, did not want to hear the rumblings from such suspect organizations as the Red Cross and the State Department.

President Bush stood by Rumsfeld last week, more or less. Washington eyebrows were raised when stories appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post at midweek, sourced to anonymous White House aides, suggesting that Bush was displeased with Rumsfeld for bungling the prison-abuse story. In the secretive, loyalty-is-everything Bush White House, such public wrist slaps are exceedingly rare. But most polls showed that the public did not want Rumsfeld fired. And by the end of the week Bush was telling an aide to instruct "your clackers" (Bushspeak for press staff) that if he heard any chatter from White House aides about Rumsfeld's getting fired, "they'll have to answer to me."

Naturally, if Bush's re-election chances are jeopardized by Rumsfeld's continued presence at the Pentagon, those instructions could change. Despite weeks of bad news, Bush's poll numbers have held up, but the ghastly images from Abu Ghraib could take their toll, especially among women voters. Bush and Rumsfeld are "not buddies," says one senior administration official. Still, Rumsfeld has been Bush's trusted war minister since 9/11, and "it is not in the Bush DNA to back down under fire," says an aide. In truth, many, if not most, Americans were relieved to have such a 1950s steak-and-martinis warrior in charge of hitting back after 9/11. If Rumsfeld wanted to round up all the terror suspects in the world, ship them to "Gitmo" and throw away the key, that was all right with American public opinion, even among the so-called elites. At last week's hearings, the showboating and windy questioning of lawmakers at times made Rumsfeld look resolute and responsible by comparison. And yet "Rummy's" tough-guy act has not worn well over time. The current scandal exposes the Achilles' heel of a warrior who leads from the front, but does not always inspire the loyalty of the men and women who are supposed to cover his back.

Rumsfeld's strengths have always been his weaknesses. His imperious manner and biting questions, his obsession with control, his occasional slipperiness, have alienated a large number of senior military officers, particularly in the Army. When his aggressive approach to prisoner interrogation began to backfire, no brave officer rose up to brace him, warn him or rescue him from a situation that Rumsfeld now describes as a "catastrophe." His failure may or may not cost him his job. But the cost to America's standing in the world (and not just the Arab world) is beyond calculation.

Rumsfeld is the most powerful secretary of Defense ever, but his method of consolidating control has proved to be a Faustian bargain. He gained authority over the uniformed military by getting control over what most senior officers care most deeply about: their careers. In a switch from the post-Vietnam era, when the military essentially ran the Pentagon and kept civilian leaders at arm's length, Rumsfeld decides who gets the good jobs. Three-star and sometimes even two-star generals receive their assignments directly from the secretary. And the message he conveys to them, says one well-connected retired senior officer, is clear: "It's my way or no way."

This message was chillingly conveyed toward the end of Rumsfeld's first year in the secretary's office, when Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chose an Air Force general for the very prestigious position of "J-3," chief of operations for the JCS. The general was summoned to Rumsfeld's office for his interview. Within minutes of the end of the session, word began to leak out from Rumsfeld's office that the general had been "arrogant" and "disrespectful" to the secretary of Defense. "Oh," said one general, dripping sarcasm, "you mean he spoke up?" The job went to a more pliant officer. Rumsfeld created a "command climate," says a former high-ranking officer who has stayed in touch with the top Army brass. "When you come to him, you don't bring bad news."

Rumsfeld's advisers hotly reject this characterization. "Rumsfeld encourages people to disagree," says one former top aide. This aide describes a meeting at which Rumsfeld asked a question of a young general who had just begun a briefing. Without even looking up, the one-star general answered, "Yes, sir, we'll change that right away." Rumsfeld asked the question again; and again, without looking up from his slides, the general said, "Yes, sir, we'll change that right away." Rumsfeld put his hand on the general's shoulder. "We put that star on your shoulder for a reason," the Defense secretary gently chided the brigadier. "We care what you think."

Maybe so, but most one-star (and two- and three- and four-star) generals are conditioned to salute and fix the problem, whatever it is--not to whine to their senior commanders. Officers are supposed to be "can do," not naysayers. "You never heard bad news from the chain of command," said the crusty father of the nuclear Navy, Adm. Hyman Rickover. The ornery Rickover always went looking for trouble himself.

So has Rumsfeld, for the most part. He essentially took over planning for the Iraq war, working over the Central Command invasion plans down to the last tank. In his effort to reform the military, to show that it could do more with less in a high-tech age, Rumsfeld insisted that a smaller, quicker force could do the job. When Gen. Eric Shinseki, the then Army chief of staff, publicly declared in the winter of 2003 that several hundred thousand troops would be required to conquer and occupy Iraq, he was essentially cut off at the knees by Rumsfeld. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was contemptuous: Shinseki's estimate was "wildly off the mark," Wolfowitz told a congressional hearing. After Shinseki stepped down last year, it was duly noted by the uniformed brass that not a single high-ranking civilian official from the Pentagon showed up at his retirement ceremony.

One senior government official describes a "moat" around the secretary of Defense that is guarded by "dragons." Chief among the dragons, when it comes to Iraq, is the No. 3 man at the Pentagon, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Cerebral and somewhat pompous, Feith is extremely unpopular among top Army officers. They blame Feith, an ardent neoconservative, for hyping the Iraqi threat and then failing to properly prepare for the aftermath of the war. Nominally, at least, he is also responsible for the military-prison system in Iraq. "We set broad policy," says Feith.

Actually, it is not clear if anyone was really in charge. Prisoner interrogation is handled by a variety of government agencies. Agents from the CIA and FBI, along with military-intelligence officials and private contractors, wander in and out of American-run prisons. The guards themselves are usually poorly trained reservists. In part because Rumsfeld insisted on invading Iraq with a minimal number of troops, the forces are chronically stretched thin.

Rumsfeld, who was so determined to control every last detail of the invasion, has been less deeply involved in the reconstruction of Iraq. From the beginning he has wanted to use as few troops and get out as quickly as possible. He sees himself as a "war fighter," not a "nation-builder," say his friends. The postwar planning was mostly relegated to the unfortunate Doug Feith. Rumsfeld himself has been cool to Feith, who is more of an ideologue and a theorist than the pragmatic, action-minded Rummy.

In the days and weeks ahead, it is likely to emerge that the International Committee of the Red Cross, the State Department and the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador Paul Bremer in Baghdad, all warned of mounting problems in the prisons--not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan as well. The Red Cross brought its complaints to the State Department's attention "regularly and consistently over a lengthy period" dating all the way back to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, one top State Department official told NEWSWEEK. A 24-page report delivered to the Pentagon in February tells of systemic "use of ill treatment"--most graphically, seven shootings of unarmed prisoners, sometimes from watchtowers. The abuses were "tantamount to torture," the report states.

Aides to Bremer say that last August the American proconsul became concerned about reports of detainees who were removed from their families and crowded into makeshift prisons in and around Baghdad, including Abu Ghraib, Saddam's notorious dungeon and torture chamber downtown. Bremer began urging military and Bush-administration officials to improve the state of affairs. How hard he rang the bell is not clear. "The CPA always viewed this as a military issue," says one administration official--i.e., someone else's responsibility. Likewise, by about November of last year, Secretary of State Colin Powell was bringing up prisoner abuse at meetings of top administration officials, including Rumsfeld. Powell has always been a strong supporter of adhering to the Geneva Conventions, the international accords that safeguard the rights of captured soldiers and civilian detainees in time of war. But it does not appear, from what is known thus far, that Powell was very urgent or vocal about his warnings. Nor does it seem that national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose job is to coordinate policy among agencies, swung into action in any forceful way.

In January came the first reports of the grotesque humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A whistle-blower--a soldier with a sense of decency--slid a computer disk with some hair-raising pictures under an investigator's door. The military publicly announced that it was launching an investigation. With the usual can-do attitude, the report up the chain to the secretary of Defense was situation-under-control. Rumsfeld did not ask to see the pictures.

For a forward-leaning detail man, Rumsfeld was strangely passive. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the photos could be devastating. Last week he protested that he could not very well have reached down into the investigation and asked to see the evidence. Since he might have to rule on the fates of defendants facing courts-martial, Rumsfeld and his aides could not be seen prejudging the case or influencing it in any way. Rumsfeld, who normally mocks lawyers as worrywart bureaucrats and nitpickers, was demonstrating unusual legal fastidiousness. But he was also being true to his disdain for all things Clintonian. He scorned the prior administration for being more concerned about image than action.

It is also possible that Rumsfeld did not want to know too much. In his public statements he has consistently said that prisoners would be protected by the Geneva Conventions or (for so-called illegal combatants) treated in the spirit of those standards. But he had to suspect that behind bars and out of sight the going would get rough, however careful he was about signing off on particular interrogation techniques. The fact that at least 25 prisoners have died in U.S. custody since 9/11 was a pretty strong hint that something was going wrong.

And yet there was Rumsfeld and his faithful (perhaps too faithful) JCS chairman, General Myers, telling Congress last week that they had read the report of their own investigator, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, only after it was widely quoted by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. Rumsfeld, who commands the most powerful military in the history of the world, verged on the pathetic in the hearings, complaining that he had been unable to get hold of a plastic disk with the offending pictures until only the night before. At one point he lamented that nobody had come forward to rescue him from his own poor PR instincts. "It breaks our hearts," he said, "that in fact someone did not say, 'Wait. Look, this is terrible. We need to do something...' " If Rumsfeld had been a better leader, maybe someone would have.

Join the Discussion