RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Bush's remarks were another sign that the administration is responding much more quickly to this story than it did to the last major military scandal as NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Three years ago a series of lurid photographs showing U.S. service personnel sexually humiliating and abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison were beamed across the world. The photos damaged the image of the U.S. military and exposed new policies on rough interrogation techniques. Despite the enormity of the scandal, the Bush administration was slow to react and did not hold senior officers accountable, says John Hutson, the dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center and a former Navy judge advocate general.
Professor JOHN HUTSON (Dean, Franklin Pierce Law Center): Secretary Rumsfeld said at the very beginning that it was a few bad apples. And so that is what we stuck with - it was a few bad apples. And sure enough, we prosecuted and court-martialed a few bad apples. They were low-ranking enlisted personnel. We did not go up the chain of command.
NORTHAM: 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 secretary of defense, Robert Gates, fired Major General 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.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): 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.
NORTHAM: Gates is new at the job, and his 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 are completely different than those of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who was criticized for being dismissive and rarely holding himself accountable.
These two traits were 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.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former Secretary of Defense): As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.
NORTHAM: Still, Rumsfeld did offer to resign over Abu Ghraib, but President Bush rejected that. Several investigations were also launched, but no independent inquiries. Retired Army Major General Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College, says circumstances have changed since then.
Major General ROBERT SCALES (Retired; Former Commandant, U.S. Army War College): Rumsfeld was dealing in a political climate different than the climate today. Recall now, the 2006 election changed everything.
NORTHAM: With Democrats in control of Congress, Hutson says there will likely be more probing hearings on the Hill about the situation at Walter Reed.
Prof. HUTSON: And that reality may have prompted quick, decisive and significant action, because the hearings are going to have a completely different tenor now than they would have had had he said, well, it's isolated, it's not a problem, the way - the kinds of things that we've heard before.
NORTHAM: The reports of shoddy treatment at Walter Reed - long considered a premier medical facility - come as the Bush administration is trying to 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.
Professor SCOTT SILLIMAN (Law, Duke University): 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 and making sure that it is seen as taking an extremely aggressive approach towards remedying the situation.
NORTHAM: Silliman says the impact of the Abu Ghraib scandal was much greater overseas than in the U.S. He says, with Walter Reed, the reverse is true.
Mr. SILLIMAN: In Abu Ghraib, it was those that we claim to be insurgents or al-Qaida members. Here, we're talking about our own soldiers who are defending us over there. So it impacts the American people quite differently.
NORTHAM: Another round of testimony about the conditions at Walter Reed gets underway today.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.