Leahy, Rumsfeld spar in appropriations hearing

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(Host) Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday. Leahy challenged the secretary about prison abuses and the war in Iraq.

Chad Pergram reports from the Capitol Hill Bureau:

(Pergram) Rumsfeld was called to testify about the Pentagon spending request for next year. But Leahy transformed the hearing into an inquisition about the war.

Leahy said when Rumsfeld and President Bush apologized for the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, it was the first time he’d heard any administration officials apologize for what he described as a “disastrous” Iraq policy.

Leahy then plunged into his own scroll of apologies:

(Leahy) “I’m sorry this administration repeatedly, insistently and unrelentingly justified preemptive war by insisting that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction but was hell-bent on using them against us and its allies. And I’m sorry about administration officials – led by the vice president – repeatedly trying to link Saddam Hussein to 9-11, though there never was any link – none.”

(Pergram) Leahy concluded his lengthy statement with a question to Rumsfeld: was the U.S. capturing, killing or dissuading more terrorists than were being recruited and trained?

(Leahy) “How would you answer that today?”
(Rumsfeld) “First, senator, I’d like to answer a few of the other comments you made.”
(Leahy) “Could you answer that one first?”
(Chair Ted Stevens) “Well, he has full right to answer your question.”
(Leahy) “I know but you could you answer the question – the specific question I asked. That’s the only question I asked. Answer that, then say all you want to say.”
(Rumsfeld) “I think it’s fair that I be allowed to answer your statement.”
(Leahy) “Well I asked a question – you don’t want to answer my question?”
(Rumsfeld) “I’d be happy to answer your question.”
(Leahy) “Please do.”
(Rumsfeld) “I will.”

(Pergram) Rumsfeld then delved into a lengthy response to Leahy’s charges, but said he didn’t know the answer to the senator’s question.

Leahy also accused Rumsfeld of failing to address expeditiously the now-exploding prisoner scandal.

(Leahy) “I’m sorry that those who tried to find the truth about allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo were ignored or brushed off for a year. Until all of a sudden the press published the lurid photographs and then we look at and we’ve made apologists of the whole administration.”
(Rumsfeld) “I think your statement that allegations of abuse were brushed off is unfair and inaccurate. There’s a lot of fine people-“
(Leahy) “I’ll show you the correspondence I sent to your office asking about these abuses five months ago that were never answered.”
(Rumsfeld) “The, um – if there was a letter that wasn’t answered I apologize.”

(Pergram) Leahy’s digression raised the ire of Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens lectured Leahy for pirating the subject of the hearing:

(Leahy) “We’ll be able to submit other questions for the record, I hope.”
(Stevens) “Senator, yes – about the appropriations.”
(Leahy) “I have several-“
(Stevens) “This is not a hearing on Iraq abuse, this is not a hearing on al Qaeda. This is a hearing to try to ask questions concerning the information we’ve been given on appropriations requests so far.”
(Leahy) “Mr. Chairman, we haven’t even been given a request yet and we’re having this hearing-“
(Stevens) “We have a request for -“
(Leahy) “For $25 billion?”
(Stevens) “Four-hundred-and-one billion dollars.”

(Pergram) Leahy’s tactics ignited the sometimes volcanic temper of Stevens.

(Stevens) “I have no cork to put in senators’ mouths or the witnesses’ mouths-”
(Leahy) “I appreciate that.”
(Stevens) “But my hope is to pursue the information we’ve gotten so far, on which we still need a lot of information about the $401 billion.”

(Pergram) The military is asking Congress for $400 billion for next year, and an additional $25 billion for operations in Iraq.

For VPR News, I’m Chad Pergram on Capital Hill.

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