Rumsfeld, in Iraq, vows no cover-up

Posted in Iraq | 14-May-04 | Author: Thom Shanker| Source: The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, making an unannounced trip to Iraq amid a global furor over mistreatment of detainees, strode into Abu Ghraib prison on Thursday and promised that the world would see America openly and freely punish any soldier guilty of abuse.

"In recent months we've seen abuses here, under our responsibility, and it's been a body blow for all of us," Rumsfeld said. "The people who engaged in abuses will be brought to justice. The world will see how a free system, a democratic system, functions and operates - transparently, with no cover-up."

On a whirlwind visit, Rumsfeld was driven around Abu Ghraib, passing outside the "hard tier" cellblock where the abuses occurred.

Hundreds of detainees rushed toward concertina wire as Rumsfeld rolled past inside an Israeli-made armored bus. Most detainees stood silently. Some waved clothes and jeered. A few held up hand-lettered signs or shirts in English, although with misspellings and incorrect grammar.

"What are you going to do about scandl?" said one. "Why we are here?" said another. A third read, "Most of us are inocents."

After a 14-hour flight to Kuwait, a 90-minute flight to Baghdad and a 7-minute helicopter ride from the American military headquarters west to Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld arrived at the prison where outrage over abuses has stained America's image and brought calls from some in Congress for the defense secretary to resign.

Rumsfeld spoke with no detainees, but in meetings with U.S. commanders and military police who have replaced those serving during the time of alleged abuses, Rumsfeld sought to assure Iraqis and the world that they can trust U.S. military justice.

But he also sought to highlight plans under way that military officers hope will likewise give confidence that the abuses will not be repeated.

In a move that is as practical as it is symbolic, Major General Geoffrey Miller, the new deputy commanding general for detention operations, said that all prisoners under coalition control would be moved out of the old Abu Ghraib structures and into new quarters by the end of May. The new "Camp Redemption" will still be within the Abu Ghraib compound, and the former prison blocks will be operated by the new Iraqi government, holding those arrested on criminal charges.

In comments to reporters on the flight to Kuwait, Rumsfeld indicated that he may not be satisfied with an explanation that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison was solely the acts of a small band of misguided military police, and that he may be looking higher up the chain of command. "We care about command systems working," he said.

The prison, for decades the scene of murder and torture under Saddam Hussein, has now become, in photos circulating the globe, a symbol of abuse by American military jailers and a stain on American pride.

Rumsfeld cautioned that his mission to Iraq should not be viewed as a solo journey that could heal the wounds to America's image from the detainee abuse. "We're not on an inspection tour," he said. "If anyone thinks I'm there to throw water on the fire, they're wrong."

Even so, Bush administration officials have expressed fears that the signature image of the war is no longer cheering Iraqis toppling Saddam's statue in Baghdad, but may instead become American soldiers laughing and giving "thumbs up" signs as Iraqi detainees are abused and humiliated.

Rumsfeld made clear that he was aware that this trip will likewise be scrutinized throughout Iraq - including by some who might claim jurisdiction to try the U.S. soldiers in their own courts once sovereignty is returned on June 30.

"The United States government is going to take care of the people who end up being convicted of some wrongdoing," Rumsfeld said. "The justice system of the United States is serious, professional - and it's under way."

And to troops later, he said he had taken steps to insulate himself from the criticism. "I've stopped reading the newspapers," he said to applause and cheers from the troops. "It's a fact: I'm a survivor."

General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew with Rumsfeld to Iraq; that was another sign of the unusual nature of the trip because the Pentagon's most senior civilian and military leader rarely travel aboard the same aircraft.

Rumsfeld began his Iraq visit with meetings in Baghdad, then headed to Abu Ghraib. After his tour of the prison, he spoke to American troops in Baghdad and said the abuses "sullied the reputation of our country."

"I was stunned," Rumsfeld said. "It was a body blow. And with six or seven investigations under way and a country that has values and a military justice system that has values, we know that those involved, whoever they are, will be brought to justice."

The meeting with the troops took on the appearance of a pep rally, with Rumsfeld and Myers commending the soldiers' work and trying to raise the morale of the soldiers, who whooped and applauded. The officials also fielded questions in a question-and-answer session.

"You folks are young," Rumsfeld said. "I'm not. But you're going to look back on this conflict, on these debates, on these difficulties - and it's going to be a tough road ahead, and we know that. But one day you're going to look back and you're going to be proud of your service and you're going to say it was worth it."

In earlier comments to reporters, Rumsfeld noted that some of the images on the three discs that are central to the Abu Ghraib investigation are pictures solely of American soldiers, and have nothing to do with detainee abuse. The rights to privacy of those troops must be protected, he said.

But rather than continue to suffer through a slow release of selected photographs broadcast by television or printed in newspapers and magazines, Rumsfeld said, "As far as I'm concerned, I'd be happy to release them all to the public and get it behind us."

But he said a number of Bush administration legal advisers throughout the executive branch were not recommending such an action.

Rumsfeld bristled at complaints that the Pentagon was engaging in a cover-up by not more rapidly bringing the provocative details of the abuse accusations to the attention of the president, Congress or the public.

Such a charge, Rumsfeld said, is "unfair, inaccurate and wrong."

"And if I find any evidence that it's true," he added, "I'll stop it."

He then took a shot at the Arab news media, which he said has filled newspapers and news broadcasts with anti-American propaganda about the mission in Iraq.

"We have been lied about, however, day after day, week after week, month after month for the last 12 months in the Arab press, in Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya," he said.

Myers said he believed that opinion around the world, and especially in the Arab world, can best be satisfied by allowing the military justice system to run its course and by punishing those found guilty of violence and abuse of detainees.

He warned that the cry for public release of all the photographs and video images from Abu Ghraib - confiscated as part of a criminal investigation - could violate the rights to due process of the accused, who then could argue for their charges to be dismissed. "The worst possible outcome is that they get off, that somehow through all of the discussions that we've been having, and somehow through releasing evidence that we have, that the people who deserve to be punished are somehow released," Myers said.