Who knew what -- and when?

By Geraldine Sealey

Published May 7, 2004 4:20PM (EDT)

When Donald Rumsfeld stood to take his oath, you could barely hear him over the whirring of the cameras. It's a historic moment, indeed, and one that weighs heavily on Rumsfeld's future. "The question is who knew what and when," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., starting off the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

In his opening statement, Rumsfeld said: "In recent days there has been a good deal of discussion about who bears responsibility for the terrible activities that took place at Abu Ghraib. These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility." He did not, however, offer his resignation.

A day after President Bush said in the Rose Garden that he had told the King of Jordan he was sorry for the prisoner abuse, Rumsfeld offered his own attempt at an apology: "I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't, and that was wrong," he said. "So to those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology."

Rumsfeld was only a few minutes into his testimony when loud hecklers interrupted the proceedings with yells of "Fire Rumsfeld!" The secretary didn't respond, but the protesters' presence was a reminder that the calls for Rumsfeld to go are growing.

Warner is right -- the question of when the administration knew about extensive abuse and torture within its military prisons is paramount. And new information today shows that a U.S. Army report , completed in late February and first publicized in the New Yorker this week was not the only warning the administration received about the extent of the abuse. The Red Cross, in a report described in the Wall Street Journal this morning, also raised the abuse issue months ago, and says it has repeatedly, over the course of more than a year, asked the Pentagon to deal with it. Of course -- CentCom says it hasn't seen the Red Cross report, which is available online. Rumsfeld this week said he hadn't yet read the Army's report -- which has also been available online. It's hard to believe Rumsfeld and military leaders are taking action to confront the shameful problem of U.S. troops abusing and torturing detainees while they're admitting they haven't bothered to read these key reports.

Colin Powell and Paul Bremer also urged the administration to take earlier action. The Washington Post says Bremer was "kicking and screaming" as early as last fall that the U.S. was detaining too many Iraqis for too long, and in poor conditions. Both Powell and Bremer expressed these concerns to Rumsfeld.

We'll wait and see if the senators adequately grill Rumsfeld on what he knew and when -- and why he didn't seem to take the multiple reports of prisoner abuse seriously until public outrage forced him to. And, of course, while Rumsfeld bears most of the responsibility here, the buck stops with President Bush. As E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post this morning: "The president needs to explain why he wasn't more curious about what was happening, and whether his management style delegates so much authority that the White House could be caught so unprepared for this catastrophe."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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