The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee lashed out at his Senate counterpart yesterday for summoning senior U.S. commanders from the field to testify at hearings into the prisoner-abuse scandal, saying the move threatens to disrupt military operations in Iraq.
"I think the Senate has become mesmerized by cameras, and I think that's sad," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).
Hunter's remarks represented a rare public attack by one leading Republican lawmaker on another. They reflected the growing strains in senior GOP circles over how to manage the scandal that has tarnished perceptions of the United States abroad, undercut U.S. efforts in Iraq and thrown the Bush administration on the defensive.
House Republican leaders have argued for doing as little as possible in response to the scandal, complaining that administration critics are exploiting it for political ends. But the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by John W. Warner (R-Va.), has made clear its intention to hold a series of hearings aimed at flushing out responsibility for the scandal.
In contrast to Hunter's panel, which has limited itself to one public and one closed-door hearing on the scandal, Warner's committee has convened two public hearings and has scheduled a third today with three senior commanders as witnesses, including Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. officer in the Persian Gulf region; Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of U.S. forces in Iraq; and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the new chief of detention facilities in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has testified before the Senate and House and privately briefed House members yesterday afternoon, was reported by senators who met with him yesterday to be frustrated by the demands that dealing with the scandal has placed on his time.
"He said that essentially all of his time is being taken up in addressing the need to produce testimony and witnesses," said John Cornyn (Tex.), one of about a dozen Republican senators who conferred with Rumsfeld over breakfast at the Pentagon. "He was expressing some frustration at the all-consuming nature of this process. It was clear this was exasperating him."
But Warner vowed to persevere, disclosing plans to call a dozen top military and civilian officials to testify as part of a wide-ranging probe into "all aspects of detainee operations in Iraq."
While telling reporters he would not respond directly to Hunter, Warner released a letter written May 13 to Rumsfeld saying that the committee "fully understands that the availability of some witnesses and material is affected" by military operations in Iraq and several investigations of the scandal still underway.
Warner had offered to hear testimony from Abizaid and other senior officers in the field by videoconference links. But the generals agreed to appear in person and today's hearing was scheduled to coincide with visits to Washington that were planned, Warner said.
Hunter criticized Warner's approach to the prison issue in comments to reporters as well as in an interview with C-SPAN.
"We are at this point disserving our military operation in theater -- that is, all of the troops are in a shooting war right now, who need their leadership -- by bringing leadership out of theater, jerking out these battlefield commanders," he told reporters after a closed-door committee meeting with the author of the Army investigation that alleged the abuse, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.
Even among Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, there is disagreement over how best to handle the hearings. Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) complained that Taguba's testimony was heard in private and urged House leaders to open the hearings on the Iraq prison scandal.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," Wilson said in a statement. "Congress must not only ask tough questions, we must be seen by the world and by Americans to be doing so, however painful that may be."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), asked about Wilson's comments, told reporters: "I'm very pleased with the way that the House committee has handled this. This is a very serious matter, and I would rather them do the work than be on television."
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) yesterday renewed his call for the House to probe the prisoner-abuse allegations in open, vigorous hearings.
"This shocking episode demands a full, open inquiry," Hoyer said in a floor statement. "It demands a bipartisan approach. I urge the Republican leadership to work with this side of the aisle in getting to the bottom of these abuses, in holding the responsible parties accountable, and in ensuring that it never happens again."