WASHINGTON — The cameras were trained on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during his testimony before members of Congress last week, but in the wall-to-wall television coverage, one figure was particularly visible in the background: Stephen A. Cambone.
As undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, Cambone may be the most important Pentagon official the public hardly knows. One of Rumsfeld's most trusted aides, he has been a key player in a wide variety of military matters, from the proposed missile defense shields to the invasion of Iraq. His authority over the $40-billion intelligence community may be second only to the CIA director's.
As was the case in Friday's hearings, Cambone has almost always preferred to operate in the background. But that will change today, when he is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the abuse of detainees at U.S.-run military prisons in Iraq.
Already, he has acknowledged that he tapped the commander of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to go to Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad last August in an effort to improve collection of intelligence from thousands of Iraqi prisoners held there.
Lawmakers will probably pursue that lead today in trying to determine whether Cambone encouraged or approved of policies enlisting military police to help soften up prisoners for interrogation. Weeks after those policies were implemented, seven Iraqi prisoners were abused and sexually humiliated by MPs whose behavior was recorded on pictures since beamed around the world.
A spokesman for Cambone said that he was not available for comment and that the Pentagon would not be releasing advance copies of his prepared remarks. In public comments, Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon officials have condemned the abuses, saying they violate requirements that treatment of prisoners be consistent with the Geneva Convention.
But a report prepared by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba suggested that the use of MPs in "setting the conditions" for interrogation may have created an environment in which harsh treatment of detainees was thought to be tolerated or encouraged. And military experts said that if responsibility for these policies reaches into the Pentagon, it probably touches Cambone's office.
"Somewhere at the bottom of this you'll find Cambone and his deputy, Boykin," said a former military intelligence official, referring to Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, Cambone's top deputy. "I think Cambone and Boykin are reflective of the whole neoconservative philosophy that these prisoners are undeserving of treatment as prisoners of war."
Others say Bush administration critics are seeking to take political advantage of the scandal -- and push for Rumsfeld's ouster -- by going after one of his top aides.
"I cannot see how anybody can reverse-engineer these [prisoner abuse] pictures back to a particular policy," said Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute with close ties to Cambone and others at the Pentagon. She said Cambone had pushed hard to improve intelligence collection "but never to the point that it would violate human rights, not in a million years."
Cambone is often lumped in with other neoconservatives in the administration. But those who know him say that he is independent-minded and less ideological than many of his colleagues. Cambone was not a prominent public advocate for the war with Iraq, and he resisted painting rosy scenarios for its aftermath.
After earning a doctorate in political science at Claremont Graduate School in 1982, Cambone embarked on a career that kept him at the center of major military issues. He worked at a government weapons laboratory and as an analyst for a defense contractor. In 1998, he became staff director of a commission, headed by Rumsfeld, examining missile threats to the United States.
The commission concluded that intelligence agencies were underestimating threats to the U.S. Its influential findings urged spy agencies to be more aggressive in reaching judgments and analysts to be less constrained by what could be proved by available evidence. Critics say the commission's work set the stage for the sort of analysis that led to erroneous conclusions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Cambone remained close to Rumsfeld, helping to lead the Bush administration's defense transition team and holding a series of Pentagon positions culminating in his job overseeing military intelligence agencies.
Even some of those responsible for knowing what is happening in intelligence circles in the Pentagon say that Cambone operates with such secrecy that they too will be watching today to learn the extent of his role in the prisoner scandal.
"We are hoping to find out at the hearing tomorrow," one military official said Monday, adding that it would be unusual for a civilian to intervene in such military matters as the interrogation of prisoners.
Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report.