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Abu Ghraib Hearings Put Dismissal of Congress on Display

The most telling moment for me in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week on torture in the Abu Ghraib prison came during Sen. John McCain’s questioning. McCain (R-Ariz.), as usual, was tough, pointed, no-nonsense and direct — but it wasn’t the question or the answer. The issue was the chain of command, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the military brass with him had prepared a thorough chart — when one of the generals said they had forgotten to bring it. Rumsfeld said, “Oh my.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Could anything more clearly demonstrate the contempt this department has for Congress? This was not a routine authorization hearing — this was a hearing testing the very core reputation of the Defense Department and the military. And they forgot the key chart!

How could this happen? I think the answer is rooted in a larger problem, and it is fundamentally a problem of and for Congress. The White House, the Defense Department, and a whole lot of other departments and agencies have no fear of Congress, because Congress has shown no appetite to do any serious or tough oversight, to use the power of the purse or the power of pointed public hearings to put the fear of God into them.

I have written many times before about this general problem. But it is and has been especially acute when it comes to defense and the war.

A little more than a year ago, Saddam Hussein was toppled after a brilliantly conceived and executed military plan. It soon became clear that we had no brilliantly conceived or executed plan for the aftermath — instead we had no plan, or a series of disregarded plans drafted by the State Department and other institutions, like the United Nations, with experience in peacekeeping and nation-building, that the Defense Department and administration viewed in about the same way as they viewed any policies from the Clinton administration — whatever they did or recommended, do the opposite.

Where were the Arabic-speaking police, brought in from Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, the emirates and other countries in the region to restore order? Instead, we relied on young American servicemen and women, including reservists, with no language skills and no training in police work. Where were the forces to stop looting and disorder in its tracks — from the museums to the palaces, homes, stores and cars? Where were the forces to protect armories and ammunition dumps from being depleted by hostile forces and terrorists? Where was the plan to employ key technocrats and bureaucrats — all of necessity Baath Party members — while weeding out the most pernicious Baathists? Instead, we fired all the Baathists (and the Iraqi Army), leaving a lot of competent workers out of the picture and a lot of disgruntled and armed former employees thinking about revenge. Pacifying Iraq was never going to be easy, but our early failures, born of arrogance, have made it much, much tougher.

All those problems and others have been evident for most of the past year. Where has Congress been?

The House and Senate Armed Services committees have held a lot of hearings since we prepared to go into Iraq and since we went in. How many have dealt with the military takeover and occupation of Iraq? Less than a handful. How many of those dealt with the issues above? Fewer than that. How many were tough and tough-minded, pushing Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers or other military and Defense Department figures to justify their actions or inactions? Even fewer.

It is hard not to like and admire Senate Armed Forces Chairman John Warner (R-Va.). He is smart, decent and a true patriot. But he has seen his role far more in terms of defending and explaining the administration than in providing penetrating public criticism. The larger problem of this Congress, which to be sure is far more true in the House than in the Senate, is that the Republican majority has gone out of its way to avoid serious criticism or tough challenges to its own administration. The idea of public hearings to really dig into policy and administrative failures is abhorrent to Congressional leaders and most committee chairmen. They are doing it now only reluctantly, only out of necessity, and bending over backwards to minimize the damage.

The administration, for its part, knows its Congressional party well. It has demanded fealty, ignored Congress when it can get away with it, and when challenged by Congress, usually offers the back of its hand. Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and the Foreign Relations Committee have tried to explore the key foreign policy issues in depth, and have found neither cooperation nor openness from the White House, but rather attempts to marginalize the panel. It is so interesting that the two most prominent administration figures with Congressional backgrounds — Vice President Cheney, who was his party’s Whip, and Secretary Rumsfeld, a key Congressional reformer in his greener days — have little if any sympathy for an independent and critical role for Congress.

The two Appropriations Committees have shown a little more appetite for searching questions and tough oversight, fitting their long traditions and pedigrees, but they are better than other panels only by comparison. Appropriators have only become exorcised when it became clear to them that Defense officials were putting together tons of military construction projects that had not been appropriated by them and were a direct challenge to their core responsibilities.

To be sure, the failure to ask tough questions of the military, or to challenge decisions made during wartime, is not new to Congress and not limited to Republicans. Richard Russell, a legend in the Senate (and a Democrat) never used the gavel of the Armed Services Committee to raise any of the tough issues about Vietnam that he did in private. Had he done so, we might have conducted that war in a much better fashion.

The Democrats who ran the Senate in 2001-2002 did not exactly distinguish themselves with penetrating oversight on Iraq and defense. But the lack of any strong sense of independent legislative authority, and the pervasive sense of Congress as a subsidiary body to the presidency, is much stronger in this Republican Congress than I have seen it in three and a half decades, and unusual in American history.

There are exceptions, of course. Thank God for GOP Sens. McCain, Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Lugar and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who have never been afraid to ask the tough questions when they should, whatever the political fallout. Watching McCain and Graham (and Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed as well) use their pitiful allotment of five minutes in that one hearing to cut to the key points and ask what should be asked, was to see Congress at its best.

Maybe now, with lots of searching hearings to follow and Congress aroused by a public outcry, others will join them. And maybe Congress as a whole will finally regain its cojones.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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