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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

Early exit for Rumsfeld

NOW that it's become clear that he blind-sided both his boss and Congress on revelations of the sadistic abuse of Iraqi prisoners, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld owes it to President Bush to fall on his sword and resign.

Failure by Mr. Rumsfeld to do the honorable thing will only further embroil the administration, and the country, in a scandal that is becoming nastier by the day.

Mr. Bush's apology to the world, delivered yesterday to Jordan's King Abdullah II, was a good start in mollifying global opinion, but it does little to satisfy those on the home-front who believe the President has been ill-served, even betrayed, by a member of his own cabinet.

Nothing less than the honor of the United States and its reputation as a moral leader in the world is at stake. Delaying the day of reckoning for those responsible for this shocking failure of leadership will only make matters even worse. And it is evident that Mr. Rumsfeld is responsible from a couple of standpoints.

First, he has the responsibility to keep the President informed of what the nation's armed forces are doing in the name of the commander in chief. If, as we are told, Mr. Bush actually learned about the photographically documented prisoner abuse from television, the secretary of defense has failed his boss both administratively and politically.

Second, if Mr. Rumsfeld sought to cover-up or downplay the abuse, he is guilty not only of moral dereliction but egregious misjudgment that renders him unfit to run the Pentagon any longer. Congressional leaders, especially those Republicans who have faithfully supported Mr. Bush on the worsening situation in Iraq, have good reason to wonder about a cover-up, given that the secretary failed to sound any alert when he briefed them hours before the photos were shown on 60 Minutes II.

Any moral authority the Bush Administration claimed in invading Iraq, whether in making the country safe for democracy or in routing the despised dictator, has been dramatically swept away by the photographs, which show American personnel seemingly enjoying the humiliation of the hooded prisoners, posed in a sexually degrading manner.

After all, the actions occurred in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, formerly employed by Saddam Hussein as a house of torture, rape, and death, ostensibly the very conduct the U.S. invaded Iraq to stop.

Equally disturbing is the prospect that those personally responsible for these inhumane acts may escape punishment.

That's because many of the interrogators and translators who helped military police mistreat the prisoners are not military personnel. Instead, they work for independent contractors hired by the U.S. government, and therein lies the problem.

Congress passed a law in 2000 that specifically allows criminal proceedings against Defense Department contractors abroad, but legal experts aren't sure whether it can be applied to those cited for the abuse.

The fallback may turn out to be a fiat issued last summer by L. Paul Bremer, the American occupation chief in Iraq. It says non-Iraqis must face criminal charges in their country of origin. If any semblance of justice is to be salvaged from this shameful episode, that is precisely what must happen.

In the meantime, Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation would go a long way toward convincing Arabs and other critics around the globe that the United States does not intend to shirk its responsibility for the abuse.



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