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The President's man?

HERE'S THE question of the day: What President Bush's definition of "superb" is. By telling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon yesterday, "You are doing a superb job," Bush stuck a thumb in the eye of everyone -- including many Republicans in Congress -- who is trying to make an honest appraisal of what went so terribly wrong at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

On Friday Rumsfeld endured hours of questioning on Capitol Hill, accepting ultimate responsibility but saying that proper disciplinary action was taken after a soldier early this year reported the mistreatment of prisoners. Rumsfeld was defended over the weekend by administration officials. Vice President Cheney said he was the best defense secretary ever. And Bush, by crossing the Potomac yesterday, reaffirmed this policy of support, insisting yet again that the abuses were the fault of "a very few people."

But the contrary evidence continued to mount.

A report by the International Committee of the Red Cross said it told the Bush administration repeatedly of widespread abuses beginning in March 2003. And the Red Cross report, posted on The Wall Street Journal's website, said some "methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information and other forms of cooperation." Some of the methods, the Red Cross said, were "tantamount to torture."

Bush's continuing efforts to minimize the scope of the problem and to keep a lid on additional photos and videos that are said to contain even more shocking material are deplorable.

"It certainly goes beyond a few guards," Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday. The administration, she said, "has got to get the whole story out on the table, even though it's going to be very disturbing." If the new material is truly incendiary, it may further endanger American troops and civilians in Iraq and elsewhere. But suppressing it can only delay the inevitable and would betray the openness that Bush still embraces, at least rhetorically.

We have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, not only for bungling the prison abuse crisis but more fundamentally for failing to have a realistic plan to win the peace in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was driven from power.

Looking ahead, there can be no confidence that Rumsfeld can repair the damage of Abu Ghraib or put American policy in Iraq on a productive track.

But yesterday's ceremony raises the troubling question of how Bush would organize a post-Rumsfeld Pentagon if he truly thinks the incumbent's performance is superb. 

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