"I've stopped reading the newspapers," Don Rumsfeld told the troops in Baghdad yesterday.

Now President Bush has some company.

So I guess I can say whatever I want right now and I won't be hearing from them.

We seem to be at a turning point, not just for the media but for the country, the kind of moment where only in retrospect is it clear that a fundamental shift has taken place.

Will the US of A gain some semblance of control in Iraq, or will things turn into an unbelievable morass?

Will the Iraqi prisoner scandal continue to build--does anyone seriously believe the other pictures won't come out?--and will it claim any high-level victims? Will more disturbing images stoke American shame and disgust, or are those emotions spent, the entire disasteful business made much smaller by the chilling decapitation video that the cable networks are using like wallpaper?

Will a sizable segment of the public conclude that the media damaged America by foisting these prisoner photos on the world? Already I'm hearing talk-radio callers demand that the press be muzzled or censored, and the First Amendment be damned. Or will more folks recognize that blaming the messenger for bringing terrible news ultimately does no good?

(Some Pew numbers: 50 percent of Republicans, 36 percent of independents and 26 percent of Dems say the press has paid too much attention to the prisoner scandal.)

Will this mounting sense of frustration with the awful postwar that followed the successful war swing the election? Can Kerry overtake Bush despite the fact that the president dominates the news coverage, and they're neck and neck despite two of the worst months that any chief executive has had? Is it true that voters don't focus on the challenger until after the conventions--which, you may recall, get less coverage than ever before in the TV age--or are people making up their minds about John Kerry now?

Have you heard anyone talk about the economy lately? Or are lots of people talking about it and it's just not breaking through the elite media's focus on war?

Does the "wrong track" number suggest that people are dissatisfied with Bush, or just plain dissatisfied?

Will the terrorists strike again, Madrid style, as Nov. 2 draws closer? If so, will it help or hurt the president?

Rummy made big news, and dominated the cable coverage, by secretly smuggling his press corps to Baghdad:

"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making an unannounced trip to Iraq amid a global furor over mistreatment of detainees, strode into Abu Ghraib prison today and promised that the world will see America openly and freely punish any soldier guilty of abuse," says the New York Times.

" 'In recent months, we've seen abuses here, under our responsibility, and it's been a body blow for all of us,' Mr. Rumsfeld said. 'The people who engaged in abuses will be brought to justice.'...

"After a 14-hour flight to Kuwait, a 90-minute flight to Baghdad and a 7-minute helicopter ride from the American military headquarters west to Abu Ghraib, Mr. Rumsfeld arrived at the prison where outrage over abuses has stained America's image and brought calls from some in Congress for the defense secretary to resign.

"Mr. Rumsfeld spoke with no detainees, but in meetings with American commanders and military police who have replaced those serving during the time of alleged abuses, Mr. Rumsfeld sought to assure Iraqis and the world that they can trust American military justice."

As if to underscore what Rummy is up against, the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/la-051304sivits_lat,1,4430352.story?coll=la-home-headlines reports: "The first soldier who will be court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal has told military authorities a harrowing tale of how a group of guards led by Cpl. Charles A. Graner joked and mocked the Iraqi detainees as they stripped them naked, struck and kicked them, and, in the crudest of humiliations, forced them to hit each other.

"In an interview with Army criminal investigators, Spc. Jeremy Sivits said that Graner was always 'joking, laughing, pissed off a little, acting like he was enjoying it,' according to documents obtained today by the Los Angeles Times. "Once, speaking to an injured detainee, 'Graner said in a baby-type voice, "Ah, does that hurt?"'

"Sivits, who according to sources is expected to plead guilty at a court-martial proceeding next week in Baghdad, also gave fresh details about the other suspects in the beating of Iraqi prisoners - for the first time describing their moods as the prisoners were stripped and abused. He also maintained, according to the documents, that all of this was done without the knowledge of their superiors in the Army chain of command."

Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/05/13/the_images_we_see____and_those_we_dont/ columnist Jeff Jacoby has had it with the press:

"I don't for a moment minimize the awfulness of what some American soldiers did to their Iraqi captives in that prison. Their offenses may have fallen far short of the savagery that Abu Ghraib was notorious for under Saddam Hussein, but in their cruelty and urge to humiliate and in the sadistic glee with which they posed for those photographs, they reek of the depravity we went to Iraq to uproot. As one who believes that this war was necessary above all on moral grounds, I'm sickened by what they did.

"But I'm sickened as well by the relish with which this scandal is being exploited by those who think that the defeat of the Bush administration is an end that justifies just about any means. I'm sickened by the recklessness of the media, which relentlessly flogged the graphic images from Abu Ghraib, giving them an in-your-face prominence that couldn't help but exaggerate their impact. And I'm sickened by the thought of how much damage this feeding frenzy may have done to the war effort."

Tom Friedman | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/13/opinion/13FRIE.html has had it with the Bush crowd:

"There is something even more important to the Bush crowd than getting Iraq right, and that's getting re-elected and staying loyal to the conservative base to do so. It has always been more important for the Bush folks to defeat liberals at home than Baathists abroad."

The prisoner scandal is turning increasingly X-rated, and the New York Post | http://nypost.com/news/worldnews/20902.htm is on it:

"Iraq's feared Abu Ghraib jail was one big sex romp - sometimes by candlelight with an audience watching, U.S. troops said yesterday.

"Sex and alcohol were commonplace, and soldiers frequently set up candlelit rooms for voyeuristic sex shows, said a soldier who served at the notorious prison.

"'There were lots of affairs. There was all kinds of adultery and alcoholism and all kinds of crap going on,' said Dave Bischel, a National Guardsman with the 870th Military Police unit, who returned home from Abu Ghraib last month."

Slate's Tim Noah | http://slate.msn.com/id/2100437/ has a nifty compilation of all the finger-pointing:

"Stop the presses! Chatterbox predicted May 11 that right-wing culture warriors would soon be blaming the Abu Ghraib prison scandal on the depravities of the 1960s. But various readers alerted Chatterbox that quite a few conservative commentators (most of them second-tier) have already come tantalizingly close to making just that point."

Another early warning about the prison depravity, this one directed at the Hill:

"At least two U.S. senators received letters and other contacts nearly a year ago from relatives of four Army reservists who were accused of abusing detainees at the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq, detailing dangerous conditions and low morale," says the Baltimore Sun. | http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/iraq/bal-te.prisoner14may14,0,453350.story?coll=bal-iraq-headlines

"The troubles at Camp Bucca, which surfaced as early as a year ago, in some ways foreshadowed what happened last fall at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, where allegations of abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners have triggered investigations by the military and by Congress . . .

"The two senators, Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, both Pennsylvania Republicans, said yesterday that in response, they had contacted the Pentagon and made an attempt to meet with at least one of the soldiers to investigate the charges."

The Bush financial juggernaut rolls on, the AP | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-05-13-bush-campaign_x.htm tells us:

"Things you can do with $200 million: cover the New York Yankees' payroll for a year, go to Disney World more than 3 million times, buy a Picasso and a Van Gogh ... and run President Bush's re-election campaign.

"Bush's campaign has hit the $200 million mark, doubling his 2000 record in less than a year of fund raising, according to an Associated Press review of donations through April, posted on the campaign's Web site."

The latest polls have brought a spate of is-Bush-in-trouble stories, following the earlier round of is-Kerry-in-trouble stories (what a difference a few points make!). First, the New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/14/politics/campaign/14fallout.html:

"Mr. Bush's job-approval numbers have sunk to all-time lows, with a majority of Americans now saying, for the first time, that the invasion of Iraq was not worth the mounting cost. At the same time, they give the president far higher marks for his execution of the battle against terrorists, even though he has argued that they are all part of one war . . .

"And for the first time, even some of the most loyal administration aides, who have regularly defended every twist in the Iraq strategy, are conceding that the president and his top advisers are stuck in what one of them called 'the perpetual debate' about whether to change strategy or soldier on. Mr. Bush's usually sunny campaign advisers make no effort to hide the depth of the problem."

The Washington Post: | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25367-2004May13.html "Six months before the November election, President Bush has slipped into a politically fragile position that has put his reelection at risk, with the public clearly disaffected by his handling of the two biggest issues facing the country: Iraq and the economy."

Knight Ridder: | http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/8659735.htm "After weeks of bad news from Iraq, from the Fallujah uprising to the prison scandal, President Bush is starting to pay a political price at home.

"Public doubts about the war are rising. A growing number of Americans are unhappy with the country's direction. Bush's approval rating sank this week to its lowest level ever."

Out in 527 land, a regulatory ruling means we're going to see even more of these independent groups. The Wall Street Journal has the latest:

"The Federal Election Commission decided not to issue new rules regulating political groups that can raise money without the limits on corporate and individual donations that apply to candidates' campaign funds. Republicans, who had sought the limits, said they would create new political groups as a result.

"The FEC, by a 4-to-2 vote, defeated a proposal requested by Republicans to require independent political organizations to pay for television advertising aimed at federal candidates with limited contributions from individuals, or 'hard money.'"

The New Republic | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040524&s=editorial052404 has some advice for JFK on Bush's latest request for Iraq, 25 billion to get him past the election:

"What's missing is a strong statement from John Kerry, the Democrats' de facto leader. While a Kerry spokesman says he would vote for the $25 billion, Kerry himself has so far avoided the issue. That's no surprise, given the political forces pulling him in different directions: his desire to simultaneously maintain credibility as a wartime candidate while not alienating antiwar voters, his prior vote against $87 billion for fighting and rebuilding Iraq, and his emphasis on fiscal responsibility.

"Kerry has no cost-free way out of this dilemma. But he can strengthen his political position while remaining true to his convictions. First, he should join congressional Democrats demanding $75 billion. This would allow him to outflank President Bush in his support of the troops. It would be consistent with his call to add 40,000 troops to the armed forces. And it would reinforce his commitment to seeing through the mission in Iraq. Whatever mistakes the Bush administration has made, it is imperative that we do everything possible to make the best of the situation.

"Second, Kerry should demand that Bush pay for the war. If we admit Iraq is an ongoing commitment, then we must treat it as an ongoing expense. Kerry needn't insist the money come from the tax cut, just that Bush find the money somewhere."

Slate's Fred Kaplan | http://slate.msn.com/id/2100410/ recalls the last Pentagon chief who quit:

"On Dec. 15, 1993, not quite a year into President Bill Clinton's first term, his secretary of defense, Les Aspin, announced that he would resign. Two months earlier, 18 U.S. Rangers had died, some of them brutally, in the disastrous 'Black Hawk Down' raid on Mogadishu. A month before that, the Rangers' commander in Somalia had asked the Pentagon for armored vehicles. Aspin rejected the request. In the raid's aftermath, many blamed Aspin's denial for the Americans' deaths . . .

"The key point is that Aspin lost the president's confidence. Once that happens, for whatever reason, the Cabinet officer in question needs to be replaced.

"The key question about the much-discussed survival of Donald Rumsfeld, the current secretary of defense, is not so much whether he should stay or go, but rather why President George W. Bush still has confidence in his judgment.

"In this light, the pertinent issue about the prison tortures at Abu Ghraib is not Rumsfeld's place in the chain of command; it's the fact that he knew, or should have known, about the tortures and the photographs -- not just from Gen. Taguba's report but much earlier from the briefings by the International Committee of the Red Cross -- and, apparently, didn't tell the president. In short, he failed at one of his primary duties -- to cull the thousands of scraps of information that come into the Pentagon every day for the nuggets of data that the president needs to know.

"His failure to alert Bush of this nugget has meant a huge cost in U.S. credibility just at the moment -- less than two months before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq -- when our credibility is most vital. Yet Bush continues to trust that Rumsfeld will keep him properly apprised in the future, even tells him in public that he's doing a 'superb' job."

Josh Marshall | | http://talkingpointsmemo.com writes:

"The Baltimore Sun quotes Colin Powell as saying 'we kept the president informed of the concerns that were raised by the ICRC and other international organizations as part of my regular briefings of the president, and advised him that we had to follow these issues, and when we got notes sent to us or reports sent to us . . . we had to respond to them, and the president certainly made it clear that that's what he expected us to do.'

"Powell further said that he, Rice and Rumsfeld kept Bush 'fully informed of the concerns that were being expressed, not in specific details, but in general terms.'

"Not only does that contradict what the White House and the president have said. It contradicts the testimony of one of Don Rumsfeld's principal deputies.

"I've been hearing for days that the State Department at the highest levels (i.e., not a few lefty FSOs in the bureaucracy, but authorized at the highest levels) has been leaking like crazy against the civilian leadership of the Pentagon on this story.

"And here we have it right out in the open. Powell isn't exactly saying the White House or the president is lying. What he's doing might fairly be described as walking up to the black board, writing out '2+2=' and then letting us draw our own conclusions.

"Now, Powell's critics will argue that this is his standard operating procedure: distancing himself from bad news with a shrewd campaign of leaks and carefully phrased attacks, which give the targets of the attacks no clear place to grab on to. And they'd be right. That is classic Colin Powell, a master Washington insider.

"But that doesn't mean it's not true."