The way the Pentagon and White House have responded to failures at Walter Reed — with profuse apologies and by firing a general and a highly placed civilian — is different from how the administration acted after the last major military scandal.
Three years ago, photographs that showed American service personnel sexually humiliating and abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison made headlines around the world. The photos damaged the image of the U.S. military and exposed new policies on rough interrogation techniques to public scrutiny.
Despite the enormity of the scandal, the Bush administration was slow to react, and did not hold senior officers accountable, says John Hutson, dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center and a former Navy judge advocate general.
"Secretary Rumsfeld said at the very beginning that it was a few bad apples. And so that is what we stuck with, a few bad apples," Hutson said. "And sure enough, we prosecuted at court martial a few bad apples, they were low-ranking enlisted personnel. We did not go up the chain of command."
That's in stark contrast to how the Bush administration is handling the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Less than two weeks after The Washington Post detailed the deplorable conditions and inadequate treatment for outpatients at the center, the new defense secretary, Robert Gates, fired Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the commander of the medical center, and forced Francis Harvey to resign from his post as secretary of the army. Gates made it clear that, unlike Abu Ghraib, the blame was not going to fall on just low-ranking personnel in this scandal.
"I don't have very much patience with people who don't step up to the plate in terms of addressing problems that are under their responsibility," Gates said.
The defense secretary's handling of the Walter Reed scandal gives him an opportunity to demonstrate how he will run the Pentagon. Analysts say his approach — and his attitude — is completely different than those of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who was criticized for being dismissive. This was evident in Rumsfeld's answer to a U.S. soldier heading to Iraq in 2004 who asked when the Pentagon was going to provide more armor for vehicles.
"As you know, you go to war with the army you have, and not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld did offer to resign over Abu Ghraib. But President Bush rejected the offer. Several investigations were launched, but no independent inquiries. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College, says circumstances have changed since then.
"Rumsfeld was dealing in a political climate different than the climate today," Scales said. "Recall now, the 2006 election changed everything."
With Democrats in control of Congress, Hutson says there will likely be more probing hearings about the situation at Walter Reed.
" And that reality may have prompted quick, decisive action because the hearings are going to have a completely different tenor now than they would have had if he had just said, 'Well, it's isolated, it's not a problem,' the kinds of things we heard before," Hutson said.
The reports of shoddy treatment at Walter Reed — long considered a premier medical facility — come as the Bush administration is trying shore up waning support for the war in Iraq. Scott Silliman, a law professor at Duke University and a former Air Force lawyer, says the Walter Reed scandal also has political consequences.
"Walter Reed is clearly a policy issue with political ramifications coming up in this country with the election in '08, and the administration is looking at it in that light," Silliman said. "And making sure that it is seen as taking an extremely aggressive approach towards remedying the situation."
Silliman says the impact of the Abu Ghraib scandal was much greater overseas than in the United States. He says, with Walter Reed, the reverse is true.
"In Abu Ghraib it was those that we claimed to be insurgents or al-Qaida members," he said. "Here we're talking about our own soldiers who are defending us over there. So it impacts the American people quite differently."
Another round of testimony about the conditions at Walter Reed takes place Tuesday.