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Who Should Have Known?
by Richard Cohen
Washington Post
May 6, 2003

This week the United States Army did the oddest thing in this Age of Bush: It reprimanded six soldiers in connection with the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal -- not for what they did but for not knowing what others were doing. An Army spokesman put it this way: "They should have known. . . ." If that's the standard, then half the Bush administration will soon be gone.

Maybe first to get the accountability ax will be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He certainly should have known that a scandal was brewing in Iraqi prisons, and he should have bothered to read the Pentagon report detailing what went wrong. Instead, the Pentagon tried to delay CBS's "60 Minutes II" from showing pictures of prisoner abuse and then, in an amazing public relations offensive, sent the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Richard B. Myers, on three Sunday talk shows to announce -- a little bugle call here -- that he had not read the report either. It had been available since March.

As is almost always the case, the Pentagon did not tell the State Department that a wee spot of trouble was coming its way because, as we know, the Pentagon doesn't tell the State Department anything. Who cares if a billion or so people in the Islamic world have a snit? The Bushies hardly do diplomacy anyway. It's for sissies. At a certain level -- a very high one -- the Bush administration is as dysfunctional as it is cocky.

But if accountability is going to be the new order of the day, there's no telling where things will wind up. What will happen to CIA chief George Tenet, who assured the president that Iraq was a virtual storehouse of weapons of mass destruction? It was "a slam dunk," the spy chief said. He should have known otherwise, but he did not. No matter. Instead of a reprimand, Bush always expresses confidence in him and probably has given him a nickname, Slam Dunk George.

Or take Condoleezza Rice. Should she have known that Bush was blowing smoke when he told the nation that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger? Yes, indeed. There was no such nuclear program in Iraq, and it hadn't attempted to make that uranium purchase. The CIA knew that, yet Bush said otherwise. Once again, no reprimand. Instead, she was rewarded with more sleepovers at Camp David.

What about Dick Cheney? He was the leading hawk in the White House, so anxious to go to war with Iraq that Secretary of State Colin Powell characterized him as feverish. The vice president repeatedly insisted that Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program. Should he have knownbetter? To revert to Cheney talk, you betcha.

Should Rumsfeld have known that stabilizing Iraq would require more troops than he allotted? Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had said so, but the Army chief of staff was brushed aside and treated as an eccentric.

Should Rummy and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have known that U.S. troops might not be universally greeted with flowers, kisses and donations to the Bush reelection campaign? It would have been prudent planning.

Should they have known that Iraqi oil might not cover the cost of the occupation? Probably. Should they have had enough troops on the ground to prevent looting and a general breakdown of law and order? Well, some might think so -- but not, apparently, the president.

You and I can argue the wisdom of going into Iraq some other time. What is not arguable, I think, is that the invasion and occupation were marked every step of the way by incompetence, smugness and repeated mistakes. Yet the only people to feel the opprobrium of the White House are those, such as Richard Clarke or Joseph Wilson, who had the nerve, the gall, the immense chutzpah to question administration policy.

The new accountability could be a wonderful thing. It comes a bit late in the game, maybe, and will almost surely be limited to expendable underlings, but a supine Congress just might get the idea and start asking some hard questions about how things went so bad in Iraq. It might begin with Rumsfeld and ask him a more pertinent version of that famous question -- not what did you know and when did you know itbut why, damn it, didn't you know it in the first place?


2004 The Washington Post Company

Posted: May 14, 2004


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