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Rumsfeld's fate unimportant, give people some facts

Epitomizing the seriousness of the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was as dour and professional as we’ve ever seen him, as he gave a presentation and answered questions before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday.

“These events occurred on my watch as Secretary of Defense,” he said. “I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility. ... I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right.”

We appreciated the straight talk and the straightforward answers by leading military members who testified alongside the Defense secretary. They dispelled the excuse that this was a training issue. It was an issue of character, values and decency, they admitted.

That’s a good sign, especially after the excuse-making that some soldiers, including the Army general who was in charge of the prison, engaged in after the explosive photographs of abuse were printed and broadcast across the United States and around the world.

We’re still a little stunned by the tendency of some administration supporters — though no one we’ve seen in the administration itself — who have downplayed the seriousness of the crimes.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pointed out, accurately, that more is at stake than the success of the Iraq war. “We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world,” he wrote, in a Thursday column calling for Rumsfeld to resign.

We’re agnostic on the issue of Rumsfeld’s political fate. The Secretary of Defense serves at the pleasure of the president and can be removed for any reason at all, ranging from changing White House policy and personnel preferences to major transgressions. We don’t see any reason he shouldn’t continue in his job, becoming a key force in cleaning up the prison-abuse mess. Then again, we wouldn’t mourn his firing or resignation, given how this scandal has played out.

Senate Democrats were right to be angry that Rumsfeld did not tell them about the abuse in meetings on Capitol Hill just hours before the explosive “60 Minutes II” report aired.

Rumsfeld has insisted that he only learned of the horrific nature of the abuses after watching that news report, which first telegraphed the photos of abuse. The president has dressed down Rumsfeld for not telling him about the matter sooner.

We’re disturbed also by reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross. As the Financial Times reported on Friday, the ICRC said “it had last year repeatedly asked U.S. prison authorities in Iraq to address serious and systematic ill-treatment of detainees, casting doubt on claims by the U.S. administration that they only became aware of abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in January when a U.S. soldier came forward with photographic evidence.”

We’re also troubled that the U.S. military tried to pressure “60 Minutes II” to postpone the airing of the abuse photographs. The U.S. military should not try to suppress such information, even in light of the heated conflict in Fallujah at the time — a point made persuasively by U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn.

There are still a lot of troubling questions that deserve better answers as Americans wait for a deeper understanding of the scope, causes and responsibility. As Rumsfeld himself put it on Friday, the actions were “a horror in the eyes of the world.”

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