Warner Bucks GOP Right On Probe of Prison Abuse
By Helen Dewar and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page A01
The silver-haired Virginian with courtly manners is a throwback to a forgotten era of congressional comity. But as he leads the Senate's inquiry into abuse of Iraqi prisoners, Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) also shows another side: a penchant for bucking his party, taking heat and surviving.
Warner says his committee has a "solemn responsibility" to discover what went wrong and to "make sure it never, never happens again." But some conservatives are angry about the high-profile televised hearings, saying the prisoner-abuse issue is overblown and threatens to undermine the United States' primary mission in Iraq.
As a result, the 77-year-old Virginian finds himself in an uncomfortable but familiar position: more at odds with the right flank of his own party on some critical issues than he is with Democrats.
"I think he should stop the hearings at this point; we've heard enough," said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a committee member. "We have a war to win, and we need to keep our talents concentrated on winning the war as opposed to prisoner treatment."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) complained that Warner and other Senate members have become "mesmerized by cameras." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was irked when Warner, in a departure from normal committee practice, decided to put all abuse-inquiry witnesses -- including the secretary -- under oath, according to Senate sources.
But Warner shows no signs of backing off, arguing that the country wants and deserves a vigorous examination of the sexual humiliation, physical abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. He has held three televised hearings this month to question top Pentagon officials and military commanders -- two more televised sessions than the House has allowed -- and he is planning more.
Friends say Warner -- a sailor in World War II, a Marine during the Korean War and secretary of the Navy before he came to the Senate in 1979 -- is motivated by a strong belief that the reputations of both the military and the Senate are at stake unless they get to the bottom of the scandal. "To do otherwise would be contradictory to everything he has experienced in his professional life," said committee member John McCain (R-Ariz.). Besides, McCain added, "it would be incredibly stupid politically."
Throughout the hearings, Warner has been respectful of Pentagon officials but no cheerleader. He praised Rumsfeld's testimony as "strong and in every sense heartfelt" and reaffirmed his support for the secretary. Yet he has defied pressure from Hunter and other Republicans to curtail the public investigation. And he occasionally has posed questions that have evoked important information, as when he asked of Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, chief author of a report on prisoner abuse: "In simple words -- your own soldier's language -- how did this happen?"
Taguba replied: "Failure in leadership, sir, from the brigade commander on down. Lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision. Supervisory omission was rampant."
Warner's style of questioning at times has been overshadowed by the more aggressive probing and criticism of other senators on the committee, including Republicans Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and McCain. They have been more aggressive than Warner in demanding information from the Pentagon.
Some congressional staff members complained that Warner moved slowly in getting the Defense Department to supply a complete copy of the Taguba report. Only after six senators drafted a letter to Warner demanding that he obtain such a copy did Warner extract a promise from the Pentagon that it would be supplied -- by an unspecified date.
Still, Warner's pursuit of the issue has the backing of most Armed Services members as well as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), though he has infuriated some conservatives. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), another committee member, has expressed concern that the hearing may be "a real distraction from trying to win the war, especially at this most fragile time." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) also suggested a lower profile for the prisoner-abuse issue, saying, "We should not allow it to distract us from the war at hand."
In contrast, both Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a senior member of the panel, applaud the course that Warner has taken. "I think he deserves a lot of credit for standing up to the more excitable elements of his party who want to put a halt to the hearings," Kennedy said. "They have been useful and informative."
In a recent interview, Warner brushed off the GOP criticism and seemed to take pride in his independence. He confessed to being a bit of a "maverick" in his recent commencement address at the University of Virginia. "Sometimes you have to say politics be damned," he added.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company