WASHINGTON—In a sign that Congress is increasingly alarmed by what's going on in Iraq, Republican and Democratic senators peppered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday with tough questions about the war and occupation there.
What are the plans for the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis? Why not abide by the Geneva Convention? Who's responsible for civilian contractors in Iraq? Why aren't there enough flak jackets and armored Humvees to protect the forces?
The pointed, skeptical and sometimes hostile questions signaled a new determination by lawmakers of both parties to assert stricter oversight of the Bush administration's policies on Iraq. Republicans have been reluctant to question President Bush, but recent developments have many lawmakers wondering if they've been quiet for too long.
One of the most heated exchanges came as Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., questioned the handover of sovereignty to Iraqis, scheduled for June 30. Domenici said he was worried that neither the Iraqis nor the U.S.-led coalition is prepared for the difficult task and its aftermath.
"I can envision that this situation will not work, and that we won't have an organizational structure that will do anything other than have Americans fighting and us supplying those fighters with more and more money," Domenici said. What, he asked, are the U.S. plans? Is the American taxpayer going to pay for Iraq's new infrastructure?
Rumsfeld offered few new details, outlining instead the plan to use United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to work with Iraqis to appoint a president, several vice presidents and a Cabinet of ministers. He said he hopes the Iraqis will finance their country's reconstruction. While his answers were no more than sketchy, Domenici said after the hearing: "It's the best we've ever gotten."
That comment reflects widely held resentment on Capitol Hill of Rumsfeld's habit of treating Congress as an afterthought undeserving of much information. That's no longer acceptable to lawmakers in light of the growing U.S. death toll, the scandal over U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners, revelations that the administration used information from dubious sources to persuade Congress to support the war and doubts about how to return Iraq to Iraqis.
The bad news is moving lawmakers to exert stronger oversight over every dimension of U.S. policy on Iraq, said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. As a result, for the past two weeks, Rumsfeld and top Pentagon brass have been running back and forth between the House of Representatives and the Senate to answer lawmakers' questions in public hearings and private briefings. Wednesday's session came before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which oversees the Pentagon's budget.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., challenged Rumsfeld for permitting abusive interrogation techniques of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and said the practices violated international rules set by the Geneva Convention.
While decrying the abuses, Rumsfeld said Pentagon lawyers had approved harsh interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation and forcing prisoners to assume stressful positions.
"All these things go far beyond the standard," Durbin said.
In another exchange, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., turned Rumsfeld's words against him. Leahy asked Rumsfeld to answer a question that the secretary posed in an Oct. 13, 2003, internal memo: "Are we capturing, killing or dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
"Al-Qaida wasn't in Iraq when we started this war. They are there now," Leahy said. "How do you answer the question you posed last October?"
Rumsfeld responded: "I don't know of any way that one can calculate that. Our folks are doing the best job they can."
Durbin asked why troops were sent into combat without proper flak jackets and why there aren't enough armored Humvees.
Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that manufacturers didn't have enough of the latest flak jackets and have since increased production. "It was new technology, so it took time to ramp it up," he said. Myers added that commanders in the field initially didn't ask for armored Humvees, but since then the Pentagon has sent some from other areas to Iraq.
"You weren't prepared, general," Durbin concluded.
The next target for oversight is the Pentagon budget and the next $25 billion the administration is seeking for Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress already has given $166 billion.
House Appropriations Chairman Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., said he was unhappy to learn that the Defense Department may have shifted 2001 funding for Afghanistan to prepare for war on Iraq, which Congress hadn't approved.
From now on, Young said, he plans "to watch every dime."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUMSFELD