Bush Issues Strong Endorsement of Rumsfeld in Visit to Pentagon

Posted in United States | 11-May-04 | Author: Kirk Semple| Source: The New York Times

President George W. Bush vigorously reiterated his support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday while promising a "full accounting" of the abuse of prison detainees by American personnel in Iraq.

"You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror," Bush said after meeting at the Pentagon with Rumsfeld, who stood by Bush's side during the remarks. "You're doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."

Bush's statements, bundled with his generally positive assessment of U.S. progress in Iraq, seemed to have three intentions: to dispel speculation about whether he would compel Rumsfeld to resign; to restore confidence at home and abroad in the administration's handling of the scandal; and to lift morale among the troops in Iraq.

Bush also said several investigations led by senior military officers were under way to determine responsibility in the prison abuse case, and he said an "orderly and transparent" investigative and judicial process would assure "a full accounting for the cruel and disgraceful abuse of detainees."

"One basic difference between democracies and dictatorships is that free countries confront such abuses openly and directly," he said.

Bush acknowledged that photos of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison had damaged America's image abroad.

"Those responsible for these abuses have caused harm that goes well beyond the walls of a prison," he said. "It has given some an excuse to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives."

His meeting with Rumsfeld was scheduled before the scandal erupted late last month, but it acquired new significance in recent days.

Bush asserted last week that he wanted Rumsfeld to remain in the cabinet, but disclosures in the widening investigation have been accompanied by calls from some top lawmakers for Rumsfeld to consider resigning to help salvage American credibility.

Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, said Monday that Rumsfeld should resign but that the administration's task was much greater than deciding whether he should stay or go.

"This is so much bigger than Secretary Rumsfeld," Biden told CBS News. "There seems to be more concern about political damage control than international damage control."

"I want to see the president do some swift and positive action here. I want to see him demonstrate to the world we understand the gravity of this."

Biden said the fate of Rumsfeld mattered little.

"I don't care if he goes and stands on his head in the corner," Biden said. "It's less important what happens to him than that we demonstrate to the world that we understand the gravity of this and move on."

While most Republicans appeared to be standing with Rumsfeld, concern about the effects of the scandal on the U.S. agenda in Iraq crossed party lines.

Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said Monday that the scandal "will cut directly to the core of our effectiveness" in ensuring a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30. "The purpose of America, our motivations, cannot be questioned."

Hagel did not call for the removal of Rumsfeld, who apologized for the prisoner abuse at hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill on Friday, but he did say that the abuse of prisoners "is an awesome issue that we need to deal with publicly and quickly and move on." "We have a large, large agenda of great international challenges out there that only America can lead with," Hagel said. The Bush administration is bracing for the expected release of more gruesome photos and inflammatory details of prisoner abuse. The New Yorker published a photograph in the magazine this weekend showing American guards holding large dogs flanking a naked and cringing Iraqi prisoner, and the photo gained circulation around the world.

John Warner, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said that the Pentagon will soon give Congress new abuse photos, which legislators will be allowed to view in private. Seven people have been criminally charged and six military personnel have been reprimanded in connection with the scandal. As many as 30 investigations are now under way, Hagel said.

S. Army major general who wrote a report outlining the abuses, Reuters reported from Washington.

The major general, Antonio Taguba, described egregious mistreatment of Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison. He will appear in the morning, a spokesman for the committee said Monday.

In the afternoon, the committee is to question Steven Cambone, under secretary of defense for intelligence, and other Pentagon officials about the scandal, which has sparked international outrage.

In his report, completed in March, Taguba cited the "systematic and illegal abuses of detainees" and said that from October to December 2003, "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees."

Rumsfeld is scheduled to be back on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to talk about the Pentagon's budget at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.