San Diego Union Tribune

May 21, 2004

A call to focus on 'good soldiers'
Too much time spent on '7 bad apples,' Hunter says


WASHINGTON Rep. Duncan Hunter has had more than enough of the media and congressional fixation on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and on what he calls "the seven bad apples" being charged with prisoner abuse.

"It's time to refocus," Hunter said yesterday as he urged his colleagues to focus on the war and on the 1.4 million men and women who are serving honorably in the U.S. armed services.

"We've lost our balance. We've spent more time focusing on the seven bad apples in Abu Ghraib" and not enough time on the "good soldiers" who are in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Hunter, R-El Cajon.

Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, received considerable notice this week when he engaged in a spat with his Senate counterpart, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who is holding hearings.

Hunter was disturbed by Warner's use of the Senate Armed Services Committee to conduct high-profile hearings on Abu Ghraib. Hunter said it forced the two top generals responsible for Iraq Army Gen. John Abizaid and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to leave their troops.

Hunter rejected demands by some House members for another open hearing on the prison abuse scandal and this week refused an offer from Sanchez to testify before the House committee on the subject.

"Please return to your troops as soon as possible they need you there. We need you there," he said in a letter to Sanchez.

"Sanchez is the combat leader in Iraq. He has all kind of issues coming up," Hunter said in an interview. "I'm not inclined to force him to stay here another three days . . . when he should be back with his troops."

"There may be decisions in the theater that could save soldiers' lives. . . . There is no substitution for being in the theater," Hunter said.

But, a spokesman for the Central Command, which is responsible for Iraq, and a military analyst said modern high-tech communications allow the top officers to stay in contact with their commands wherever they are.

"Our chain of command and communications are such that the commanders can travel either in theater or to (the United States) and maintain contact," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a public affairs officer at Abizaid's Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

"I would say, in this day and age with the kind of communications we have, the risk is minimal," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "It's not like bringing Gen. (Ulysses) Grant back from Richmond" during the Civil War.

In addition to being able to communicate instantly by satellite telephone and video conferencing, "Abizaid and Sanchez probably can get back to Baghdad faster than Grant could get to Washington," said Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who has worked in the Pentagon and for Congress.

In the interview and in debates on the House floor, Hunter rejected the complaints that Congress had failed to investigate the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.

"We've looked into this," he said, referring to his committee. "We had four hearings on this," with witnesses from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on down. "We've given more time to these bad apples . . . than to any weapon."

"It's a matter of balance," Hunter said.