Rumsfeld Offers Apology at Hearing

Times Staff Writers

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broadly apologized today for the abuses of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody and sent a sharp warning that "many more" images and videos exist depicting violence on the captives.

In hearings today on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld said the materials could only be described as "blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman."

He also acknowledged that he "failed to understand" the importance of alerting President Bush and lawmakers earlier to the brutal acts at the prison. When asked whether he should step down over the scandal, the hard-charging Rumsfeld uncharacteristically paused.

"Needless to say, if I could not be effective, I would resign in a minute," he said. "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it."

In straightforward testimony to the Senate and then the House that lasted about 6 hours, Rumsfeld occasionally flashed his trademark combativeness. He said he should be held accountable for the abuses at the Iraqi prison and offered several reforms, including compensation for victims who were abused.

In a sweeping apology that included mistreated Iraqis, President Bush, the Congress, the U.S. military, and the American people, Rumsfeld said, "These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of Defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility."

He added: "I feel terrible about what happened to Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't and that was wrong."

In sworn statements to the House Armed Services Committee this afternoon, one lawmaker said events have dissolved the trust not only between the Arab world and U.S. forces, but also between the U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense.

Minutes into his testimony, Rumsfeld was heckled by several people in the audience, who shouted "Fire Rumsfeld!" and "War Criminal!" Security guards ushered the protesters out of the room.

Rumsfeld offered several reforms in hopes of containing fallout from the abuses that has led some Democratic leaders to call for his resignation and sharp criticism from Republicans. Investigations have shown that 25 prisoners in Iraq have died while in custody, said Les Brownlee, the acting Army secretary. Of those, a dozen died from natural causes, but two have been declared homicides and 10 remain under investigation.

Rumsfeld said he is forming an independent commission, composed of former officials, to determine whether more investigations need to be launched besides the several underway by the Pentagon. The commission will be expected to make its conclusions within 45 days.

Moreover, Rumsfeld said the procedures for detainees would be reviewed and said that victims also should receive some form of remediation. And the Defense secretary, under questioning from senators, said he would consider tearing down the Abu Ghraib prison where the abuses occurred under U.S. command. During the regime of Saddam Hussein, the prison was used for torturing and executing Iraqis.

Lt. Gen. Lance Smith testified before the House that about 75% of the recommendations made from a military report on the abuses have been implemented.

Rumsfeld, following Bush's lead as the furor has drawn more international outrage, elaborated before the senators on his apology for the abuses at the Iraqi prison.

"To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was inconsistent with the values of our nation, it was inconsistent with the teachings of the military to the men and women of the armed forces, and it was certainly fundamentally un-American."

The Defense secretary today had two missions: to explain how the abuses occurred and to save his job. His sworn testimony, carried on live television in the U.S. and at least two Arab networks, comes a week after photographs of naked and abused Iraqi prisoners produced waves of anger around the world and drew condemnation of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.

Rumsfeld's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning and its House counterpart this afternoon came under mounting pressure from lawmakers to report in greater detail about abuses of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody.

Throughout his testimony, Rumsfeld emphasized that the military was the first to announce that abuses had occurred at Abu Ghraib, that investigations had been launched, and that "swift, corrective action" was implemented.

The hearing did not break down along partisan lines, with some of the staunchest support for Rumsfeld coming from Democrats.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman came to the defense of the secretary and the beleaguered military. He said that the terrorists have not offered apologies for their actions and that is why "Americans are different."

But one of the testiest moments came at the hands of Republicans. A sharp exchange occurred when Sen. John McCain, the Arizona senator, pushed aside the panel's stance that some of their answers should be measured because of pending investigations.

McCain asked who was in charge of the prison guards and what instructions were given. When Rumsfeld attempted to defer the question to other military officials, McCain stopped him and demanded an answer.

The heated tone continued with the next questioner, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), who asked Rumsfeld when he became aware of the allegations of abuse.

Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) also blasted Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for trying to suppress news reports of the scandal, prompting an angry exchange.

"Is that the standard position of the high command of this country to try to suppress news reports?" Dayton asked Myers.Rumsfeld said that it is not unprecedented for the military to ask the media to sit on information in service of national interest. "It's not against our history, it's not against our principle," he said.

Dayton did not back down and criticized Rumsfeld for withholding information of the photographs, even though the secretary made an appearance on Capitol Hill the day the story became public.

Critics have accused administration officials - particularly Rumsfeld - of acting too slowly to address the abuses they said they first learned about in January. At today's hearing, Rumsfeld was confronted with the International Committee of the Red Cross' statements that U.S. officials knew about the abuses last year and had alerted American authorities in detailed reports.

Today, Rumsfeld said he would turn over to the committee all U.S. records related to the abuses.

Rumsfeld also repeated that he did not know about the abuses until Jan. 16, when U.S. Central Command announced publicly that it had launched an investigation over allegations of abuse.

Although he said he was blindsided by events, and did not see any photographs until months later, Rumsfeld acknowledged that he failed to keep the president and other lawmakers aware of the serious abuses taking place in Iraq.

"Let me be clear: I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including the president and the members of Congress."

The abuses occurred last year between October and December, Myers told the House committee. He flatly denied that the Pentagon applied pressure to get more results through interrogation, resulting in abuses. Instead, he said that a leader was not needed to tell those involved that the abuses were "immoral" and "unethical".

"This is a failure of individuals," he said.

Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) criticized Rumsfeld's management of the war, saying the photographs represent only the latest in a string of American failures in Iraq. Taylor grew emotional, saying he shares in those failures as a congressional member who voted for the war.

"You're obviously a smart man," Taylor said. "How is someone so smart and so detail-oriented, why did it take from January to May to find out about this? I sent those kids off to get killed. I share in the responsibility."

The scandal has provoked several Democrats, including Massachusetts senator and presidential hopeful John Kerry, to call for Rumsfeld's resignation. Several newspapers, including the New York Times today, also wrote editorials saying the Defense secretary should step down. The Republican leadership also has sharply criticized Rumsfeld.

But Rumsfeld still has backing from his most important ally: President Bush. The president on Thursday insisted that he was sticking with Rumsfeld as his Defense secretary.

"Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of Defense," Bush said. "Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars He's an important part of my Cabinet, and he'll stay in my Cabinet."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad