Rumsfeld trip before budget release sparks questions

By Amy Klamper, CongressDaily

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is scheduled to leave town Feb. 8, one day after the Bush administration delivers its fiscal 2006 budget request to Congress.

Congressional sources say he is not scheduled to defend the Pentagon portion of the budget until Feb. 16-17, when he will appear before the Senate and House Armed Services committees and the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

A Senate aide speculated that Rumsfeld is trying to "skip town" in order to avoid tough questions from lawmakers on proposed budget cuts in major weapons systems, sending the military service chiefs instead to Capitol Hill Feb. 10 to defend the request in his absence. But Defense Department sources say the secretary's delay in appearing before lawmakers is merely because of a scheduling conflict.

Rumsfeld is slated to meet fellow NATO ministers in Nice for two days during the week of Feb. 7 at an annual ministerial meeting. He may travel from there to an undisclosed location in Europe before returning to Washington in the middle of the month.

They also noted that Rumsfeld will not attend the annual defense conclave known as Werkunde in Munich, an unusual move given that it is traditional for U.S. Defense secretaries to make an appearance at the 40-plus-year-old security conference. Instead, Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's undersecretary of Defense for policy, will appear in Rumsfeld's absence.

Pentagon sources said the conference, slated for Feb. 11-13, conflicts with the Nice meeting, but the NATO meeting will take place Feb. 9-10, before Werkunde.

Sources say Rumsfeld canceled the Munich trip after the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights asked German authorities to prosecute him for war crimes. The human rights organization filed a complaint last December with the Federal German Prosecutor's Office accusing the Defense secretary of war crimes and torture associated with the abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.