CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld headed to Capitol Hill on Friday for what might be his toughest fight yet — one where he may need to keep his usual combative style in check.
Congress wants to know why Rumsfeld did not notify key congressmen of the allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, or the existence of the photographs of apparent abuse, before they were aired last week on .
They also want to know why the defense secretary never saw the photographs before they were broadcast, even though he was aware of the charges of abuse since January. Questions also surround whether those under Rumsfeld, and he himself, heeded warnings in 2003 that the conditions of the prisoners was suspect.
The fallout from the pictures forced President Bush to Wednesday, and then on Thursday to , saying the images made Americans "sick to our stomachs."
The photos show U.S. soldiers gloating at Iraqi prisoners, some of them nude, hooded and in sexually degrading poses. They have prompted outrage throughout the world.
With calls for Rumsfeld's resignation by key congressional Democrats, the political future of the secretary of defense is ambiguous at best and dire at worst, although Mr. Bush has vowed to stand by Rumsfeld, saying "he'll stay in my Cabinet."
Experts expect Rumsfeld, who turns 72 in July, will likely weather this starkest of political storms unless evidence of a cover-up proves irrefutable.
But Rumsfeld himself has sometimes angered his peers both for his personal tendency of "doublespeak" and questions about how open he is to Congressional criticism.
"For reasons good and bad there is a lot of animosity built up toward Rumsfeld on the Hill especially, some in the White House I would say, so I don't think he has as much of a cushion as someone else who would be given the benefit of the doubt," said Bill Kristol, who is the editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, considered the most influential publication on this White House. "George Tenet is a good example," Kristol added, "he should have resigned, he should have been asked to resign two or three times given our intelligence failures.
"Good will does go a long way when you get in trouble in Washington and I would not say there is a lot of good will out there toward Rumsfeld," Kristol continued. "It doesn't mean is going to be fired, it doesn't mean he can't ride this out, but at the margin it could make a difference."
John Fortier, an elections expert at the American Enterprise Institute and executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission, thinks Rumsfeld will likely survive. "This is a loyal administration and if it believes that Rumsfeld has made some mistakes but is seriously correcting, my guess is that they'll keep him," Fortier said. "The political fallout for Rumsfeld leaving and also the fallout for things in Iraq would be tremendous."
Rumsfeld could also face questions surrounding whether the abuse was isolated or part of a policy of sexually humiliating prisoners for the sake of breaking their will and hence gaining intelligence. In a Muslim culture such humiliation would prove especially distressing to prisoners.
Meanwhile, the chorus of Democrats calling for Rumsfeld to step down is growing. On Thursday, Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive presidential Democratic nominee, repeated his call for Rumsfeld's resignation. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters she believes Rumsfeld should quit. And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, issued a statement saying, "For the good of our country, the safety of our troops, and our image around the globe" Rumsfeld should resign, or else, "the president should fire him."
Both Republicans and Democrats are irritated that Rumsfeld did not brief lawmakers when he met with them on Capitol Hill only hours before CBS aired the incriminating images. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the CBS News "Early Show" on Thursday that he will question Rumsfeld himself on Friday. But McCain said he would not call for Rumsfeld's resignation.
"I don't presume to tell the president what he should do," McCain said. "But it's obvious that there's a lot of explaining that Secretary Rumsfeld and others have to do, including why Congress was never informed as to this."
McCain added, "There's going to be repercussions about that, because we do have a responsibility here in Congress."
On Wednesday, the White House said Mr. Bush admonished Rumsfeld for failing to notify him about the abuse reports or the existence of the photos. But Mr. Bush indicated his support for Rumsfeld on Thursday, telling reporters in the White House Rose Garden that Rumsfeld was "a really good secretary of defense" who has "served our nation well."
"I know that Rumsfeld's loyal to this president and he has to assess the harm this does to his president as this happened on his watch," said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution.
"Now Bush is running for president and Don Rumsfeld is not only a loyal Cabinet member but also a loyal Republican," Hess continued. "He's been elected as a Republican. He once wanted to run for president himself. He may find it is necessary to fall on his sword."