Senate Democrats lit into the Bush administration's Iraq policies yesterday, using an uncharacteristically contentious hearing on additional war spending to attack the Pentagon's number two official in personal and bitter terms.
After listening to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz testify before the normally stately Armed Services Committee for several hours, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said, "What I've heard from you is dissembling and avoidance of answers, lack of knowledge, pleading process -- legal process."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) then hit Wolfowitz, who is seen as a major architect of the Bush administration's approach to Iraq, with a virtual indictment. "You come before this committee . . . having seriously undermined your credibility over a number of years now," she said. "When it comes to making estimates or predictions about what will occur in Iraq, and what will be the costs in lives and money, . . . you have made numerous predictions, time and time again, that have turned out to be untrue and were based on faulty assumptions."
She quoted to him from his previous testimony from the run-up to the war, in which he asserted that the Iraqi people would see the United States as their liberator, that Iraq could finance its own reconstruction and that the estimate of Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, that it would take several hundred thousand troops to occupy Iraq was "outlandish."
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), usually the committee's fiercest critic of the Bush administration's stance on Iraq, seemed almost tame by comparison. He used his questioning time simply to criticize the administration's "arrogance" and remind colleagues to fulfill their constitutional duties.
Wolfowitz, a former Yale political scientist who seems to enjoy political debate more than most senior Bush officials, ignored many of the attacks, including most of Clinton's charges. But he told her that in disagreeing with Shinseki's estimates on the troop requirements for postwar Iraq, he was siding with another senior Army general closer to the action -- Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Iraq and the Middle East.
"I didn't have time to respond . . . to the whole list" of Clinton's points, Wolfowitz said in an interview last night. "I plan to."
Wolfowitz did respond directly to Reed's attack, which followed a heated and confusing exchange on whether U.S. commanders permitted military interrogators to violate the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of military prisoners of war and civilian detainees.
"I'm not dissembling," he said. He tried to weave his way though the hypothetical questions Reed had posed about the rules of engagement for interrogations in Iraq, saying he had not been told that senior commanders in Iraq had approved questioning techniques that violate the Geneva accords.
Cutting him off, Reed said, "Well, I would suggest, Mr. Secretary, that you're not doing your job."
Reed did not establish whether commanders had approved harsh interrogation methods that would violate the Geneva Conventions, and the Defense Department said in a statement last night that Reed was wrong. But in an indication of how besieged Pentagon officials have become, Wolfowitz said he had not seen the Army's rules for interrogations of Iraqis -- a document that was released at an Armed Services hearing three days ago and carried in some newspapers.
"I saw this document for the first time this morning," Wolfowitz said. He said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is focusing on the detainee abuse scandal and had asked him to deal with the Defense Department's other pressing business.
The hearing -- the third held by the panel on Iraq in seven days -- was striking because under the leadership of Chairman John W. Warner, a courtly Virginia Republican, the committee long has been staid in dealing with the Bush administration and on most military matters.
Warner seemed briefly to lose control of the committee yesterday, faced down by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) over whether Wolfowitz could be questioned on broad matters of Iraq policy or only the narrower issue of additional spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which together are costing about $4.5 billion a month.
When Warner admonished him to keep his questions to the budget issue, Kennedy erupted. "I've been on this committee for 24 years, I've been in the Senate 42 years, and I have never been denied the opportunity to question any person that's come before a committee, on what I wanted to ask," he said. "And I resent it and reject it on a matter of national importance."
Warner persisted, provoking a formal challenge from Kennedy. "Well, Mr. Chairman, then you're going to have to rule me out of order, and I'm going to ask for a roll call of whether the committee is going to rule me out of order," he snapped.
At that point, Warner backed down and said Wolfowitz's preliminary remarks had invited such broad questioning. "You have opened it up in your opening statement," Warner told Wolfowitz.
In the interview last night, Wolfowitz said he believed the hearing was "pretty civil." He added: "We actually agreed to reach a compromise on the key issue, which was how much flexibility would the Congress give the administration in its [spending] request."