Richard Nixon could be an excellent judge of character when he wasn't suffering one of his frequent spasms of paranoia, anti-Semitism, or resentment against the eastern establishment. He certainly had Donald Rumsfeld's number. "I'm disappointed in Don," Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, one day in April 1971. (At the time, Rumsfeld was director of the White House's Economic Stabilization Program.)
I don't want somebody who's just with us, God damn it, when things are going good, you know what I mean? If he thinks we're going down the tubes, and he's just going to ride with us … then screw him, you know?
In many ways, Rumsfeld is a different man from the one he was in 1971. Most obviously, Rumsfeld has morphed from Vietnam dove to Cold War hawk to Iraq hawk. But Rumsfeld's instinct for bureaucratic self-protection is as finely honed as ever. The latest evidence of that is Rummy's eerie silence about the devastating news, first broken April 29 by CBS's 60 Minutes II, that American troops have been systematically abusing and humiliating—in some instances, actually torturing—Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and also, apparently, elsewhere. (Photographic evidence—not for the squeamish—can be found here.)
President Bush was asked about the 60 Minutes II report the day after it ran. He made clear that such misbehavior on the part of American soldiers would not be tolerated:
I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated. Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people. That's not the way we do things in America. And so I—I didn't like it one bit.
That same day, Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball asked Rumsfeld the same question. But unlike the president, Rumsfeld refused to discuss the Abu Ghraib scandal at all. To do so, he said, might interfere with ongoing and future military prosecutions:
A: The program is all I have seen on it and I watched General [Mark] Kimmitt on that program who is in Iraq and is a professional soldier and the pain in his face, the expressions that he gave of his disappointment and his heartbreak at seeing those accusations and allegations that are there—I'm in the chain of command. I am not allowed to opine about things like that.
Q: I understand. Because they have to go to military justice, right?
A: You bet. Allegations like that will end up in the military justice system as they should. And they will be dealt with in an appropriate and just way and I'm not in a position—it could alter circumstances if I made expressions on the subject at this time.
Rumsfeld's answer wasn't complete bunk. In military justice, the doctrine of "unlawful command influence" is taken more seriously than, say, Nixon famously mouthing off about the guilt of Charles Manson before Manson had been convicted for murder. That's because, unlike civilian courts, "the military justice system does work within a hierarchy and is susceptible in ways that are unique to the views and desires of people in positions of authority," according to Eugene R. Fidell, a Washington attorney who has taught military justice at Yale. In Fidell's view, Bush shouldn't have made the comments quoted above about Abu Ghraib, because as commander in chief the president sits at the very top of the military hierarchy.
Fair enough. But the need to prosecute soldiers who abuse and torture Iraqi prisoners isn't the only imperative. Even more important is the need to prevent soldiers from abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners in the future. For that to occur, a minimum requirement is surely that the president and the defense secretary make clear that such behavior has to stop now. Fidell readily concedes as much. Chatterbox wondered: Placed in Rumsfeld's position, what would Fidell do? Would he refuse to say anything? No, he told Chatterbox:
I think it is possible to find words that do not hit the third rail here. For example, an expression that the government views this as a matter that has to be investigated fully, and energetically. And that the results of the investigation will be shared as broadly as possible.
Rumsfeld wasn't willing to say anything like that, which suggests his reverence for the doctrine of unlawful command influence is exceeded by a disinclination to associate himself in any way with a scandal that occurred on his watch.
The story, of course, only got bigger, so Rumsfeld subsequently tried a second tack. He couldn't comment, he said through a spokesman, because he had not yet been briefed on a report documenting the abuses by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The report, which is discussed extensively by Seymour Hersh in the May 10 New Yorker, is only 53 pages long, and was completed in February. (Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, trotted out the same alibi.)
One can only wonder whether Rumsfeld's refusal to comment on the prison abuse scandal a full five days after the public learned about it has started to annoy the president. White House spokesman Scott McClellan kicked off the May 3 press briefing with the following announcement:
Good morning. Let me run through the President's day. He had his usual briefings before departing. He also spoke with Secretary—he called Secretary Rumsfeld this morning to discuss the strong actions and steps that the military is taking to address matters in the prison system in Iraq and prevent prisoner abuse. They talked about the comprehensive review of the policies and procedures throughout the prison system in Iraq. And the President wanted to make sure that appropriate action was being taken against those responsible for these shameful, appalling acts.
McClellan's main purpose in spotlighting Bush's conversation with Rumsfeld was to demonstrate that Bush is not sitting idly by while the Abu Ghraib scandal continues to unfold. But Chatterbox thinks the White House might also have been hinting subtly that the guy you really ought to talk to about all this isn't the president. It's Rumsfeld. Er, Don, jump in any time the White House seems to be saying. How long can Rummy hold out?
[Update, May 4: Answer: Not long. Rumsfeld held a press conference today calling the abuse "totally unacceptable and un-American" and "deeply disturbing." He promised to "take these charges and allegations most seriously."]