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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 May, 2004, 00:07 GMT 01:07 UK
Rumsfeld's uncertain future

By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Washington

Donald Rumsfeld
Have the nine political lives of Donald Rumsfeld run out?
He came to Capitol Hill reluctantly, well aware the knives were out.

Donald Rumsfeld was accompanied by a small platoon of generals and Pentagon officials.

His appearance was so eagerly awaited, the swearing in was drowned out by a chorus of cameras.

With his political life on the line, the usually abrasive defence secretary was in a contrite mood.

"These events occurred on my watch," Mr Rumsfeld told the committee. "As secretary of defence, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility."

Then he went on to give the apology he had been so reluctant to offer before: "I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They're human beings. They were in US custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't and that was wrong."

But that was never going to be the end of the matter.

Donald Rumsfeld has made many enemies in Washington, not least on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers feel he treats them with contempt.

Defence tactics

Today, one of his tactics was to use the phalanx of officials around him to deflect the questions.

Their series of statements successfully used up a good portion of the time allocated for the hearing.

But as Mr Rumsfeld started passing questions over to them, it infuriated some of the senators.

John McCain, the independent-minded Republican and former presidential candidate, was clearly exasperated when Mr Rumsfeld passed on to a senior general a question about who was in charge at the notorious Abu Ghraib jail.

Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers
Mr Rumsfeld deflected questions to the military brass
"No, Secretary Rumsfeld, in all due respect, you've got to answer this question, and it could be satisfied with a phone call," Mr McCain interjected.

"This is a pretty simple, straightforward question. Who was in charge of the interrogations?"

No clear answer came back from Mr Rumsfeld. And he came under more heat from several Democratic senators.

It took a true, hard-line Republican loyalist, Senator Saxby Chambliss, to give Mr Rumsfeld his only unqualified endorsement from the committee.

"By you coming in here and making an admission, as a strong leader, that a mistake was made and that you're going to be doing whatever is necessary to correct that mistake shows just what kind of leader you are," Senator Chambliss said.

"And anybody who questions your effectiveness and your ability to lead the United States military has had that question answered today. So for that, I commend you," the senator added.

Public-relations disaster

Two other senators asked Mr Rumsfeld about his future. The defence secretary had a simple reply.

Needless to say, if I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute. I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
"Needless to say, if I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute. I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it," the secretary said.

For all the tough questioning, there were no great revelations.

Mr Rumsfeld prepared America for more bad news with the warning that more pictures - and some videotapes - of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, were still out there, as yet unpublished.

There was a contradiction in the evidence as well.

Mr Rumsfeld and his generals were critical of the publication of the pictures - even though that is the event that has really brought this scandal to light.

So that the impression is that the Pentagon views this, above all, as public-relations disaster - not a human tragedy.

On Thursday, President Bush gave the defence secretary his public support.

Despite that, the word in Washington is that the president is still undecided about whether it is more politically damaging to keep Mr Rumsfeld or to dump him.

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