WASHINGTON—Lindsey Graham is a freshman U.S. senator, but he is also an Air Force colonel—a military judge with more than 20 years of service as an Air Force prosecutor and defense attorney.
That means that even though he is one of the most junior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the South Carolina Republican speaks with unique authority as the Department of Defense tries to explain how U.S. soldiers came to abuse Iraqi prisoners in violation of legal standards. His colleagues on both sides of the aisle look to him for leadership.
"Sen. Graham's experience as a JAG (judge advocate general) officer with both prosecutorial and defense experience has given him a special insight into the issues that we're confronting," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who also sits on the Armed Services Committee. "His questions have been very pointed and helpful in sorting out the situation we're investigating."
"No one else on the committee has his knowledge of military law," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
For more than four years, Graham served as a chief Air Force prosecutor in Europe, handling everything from rape to murder cases. Now he is the only senator currently serving in the military.
Graham is raising his profile during the highly publicized hearings on Abu Ghraib by virtue of more than an insider's knowledge of military justice. He also has a gift for boiling down messy scandals into folksy soundbites, as anyone who watched him as a young congressman during the Monica Lewinsky scandal may remember.
"Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?" he asked as the House Judiciary Committee debated whether to impeach President Clinton.
After service in the South Carolina state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, he won election to the Senate in 2002, succeeding the legendary Strom Thurmond, who had represented the Palmetto State there for 48 years.
Graham grew up in a South Carolina mill town where his parents ran a beer joint called The Sanitary Cafe. He learned the art of conversation as a child when helping out behind the bar. He was the class clown in high school and a psychology major at the University of South Carolina.
As an attorney in private practice, he learned to talk to a jury as if its members were sitting in The Sanitary Cafe.
Graham used that same regular-guy tone Friday during the Senate Armed Services Committee's opening prisoner-abuse hearings. With Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld testifying, Graham asked him the simple, straightforward question on everyone's mind: "What do you say to those people who are calling for your resignation?"
Rumsfeld said he was in charge and capable of remaining in charge.
On Tuesday Graham defended Rumsfeld—up to a point.
"Secretary Rumsfeld has to manage the whole war. I think it would be unfair for him to take a fall if this is just a limited activity of a few people or a prison poorly run."
Note the "if."
Unlike other Republicans, Graham hasn't supported Rumsfeld unconditionally. On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, he berated Vice President Dick Cheney for suggesting that that the Senate leave the secretary alone.
And repeatedly, Graham has warned that lower-ranking soldiers better not be the only ones who lose their jobs and do time for abusing Iraqi captives.
That's just fairness, said Graham, a fairness built into the Code of Military Justice.
"I think that's probably the core issue here, is we just don't want a bunch of privates and sergeants to be the scapegoats," he said on "Meet the Press."
"Most of my friends entered the military as privates and sergeants," he said. "I grew up in a blue-collar world, and I'm just concerned that when big things happen, that little guys don't take the fall."
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Military Service: Colonel assigned as a Reserve Judge to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals and in the Air Force Reserves since 1995; S.C. Air National Guard, 1988-1994; called to active duty during Gulf War, serving at McEntire Air National Guard base in South Carolina; Circuit Trial Counsel for the Air Force in Europe, 1984-1988; Area Defense Counsel for Shaw AFB in South Carolina, 1982-1984.
Political: S.C. General Assembly, 1993-1995; U.S. House, 1995-2003; U.S. Senate, 2003 to present.
Education: University of South Carolina, bachelor's in psychology, 1977; University of South Carolina School of Law, juris doctor, 1981.
Senate Committees: Armed Services; Health, Education, Labor & Pensions; Judiciary;
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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