Rumsfeld Offers Apology for Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners

Posted in United States | 08-May-04 | Author: David Stout| Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON, May 7 — A chastened Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered his personal apology today for the abuses inflicted upon Iraqi prisoners by their American military jailers, saying that the wrongdoings were "fundamentally un-American" and signaling that even uglier disclosures are to come.

"I take full responsibility," Mr. Rumsfeld told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, some of whom pressed him with hostile questions. "I offer my deepest apology." Later, he delivered virtually the same remarks to the House Armed Services Committee.

In appearances widely seen as crucial to his prospects of remaining as Pentagon chief, Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged that he was responsible for what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad because the events occurred "on my watch."

"I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "They're human beings."

The secretary said he would name a commission to look deeply into the incidents of abuse, notwithstanding the inquiries already under way, and that he would try to find a way to compensate the individual detainees who were abused.

"It's the right thing to do," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

But at the House panel hearing, Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the committee's ranking Democrat, called for still more congressional hearings, despite whatever inquiries the Pentagon undertakes on its own. "These appalling revelations have done incalculable damage," he said.

The House committee's chairman, Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, said he was sure that the misconduct of a few was not representative of most soldiers in Iraq. But he said, "We're all outraged by what happened."

Mr. Rumsfeld said in response to questions that the abuses were instances of misconduct, not part of tactics meant to "soften up" detainees for questioning. But he indicated that even more instances have yet to be made public.

"Beyond abuse of prisoners, there are other photos that depict incidents of physical violence towards prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel and inhuman," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "There are many more photographs and indeed some videos. Congress and the American people and the rest of the world need to know this."

At one point, the secretary told the Senate panel, "There are a lot more pictures."

Mr. Rumsfeld praised the courage of the soldiers who came forward and told of the abuses. He said the resulting investigations, and the collective examination of conscience that underlie them, offer an opportunity for the United States to make amends.

"Watch how a democracy deals with wrongdoing," Mr. Rumsfeld said in what amounted to a plea to the world. "We will strive to do our best, as imperfect as it may be," he said after declaring that he felt "the heartbreak of acknowledging the evil in our midst."

As for his own future, Mr. Rumsfeld told the senators, "I'd resign in a minute" if he concluded that he could no longer lead the Defense Department effectively.

The secretary said the acts of a few American soldiers do not represent the values and conduct of most American military men and women in Iraq. "They're truly wonderful human beings," he said.

Several panel members said they agreed. But they also took Mr. Rumsfeld to task. Senator John S. McCain, Republican of Arizona, wanted to know what private contractors were in charge of questioning the prisoners and had authority over the guards.

When the secretary did not answer immediately, Mr. McCain grew exasperated.

"No, Secretary Rumsfeld, in all due respect, you've got to answer this question, and it could be satisfied with a phone call," Mr. McCain said. "This is a pretty simple, straightforward question. Who was in charge of the interrogations?"

Mr. Rumsfeld did not answer directly at first. Finally, he said, "That is what the investigation that I have indicated has been undertaken is determining."

Mr. McCain was clearly not satisfied with the answers. "I think these are fundamental questions to this issue," he said.

At one point, Mr. Rumsfeld was interrupted for a loud, long moment by several hecklers. "Fire Rumsfeld!" they shouted before being ejected from the Senate hearing room. "Fire Rumsfeld!"

Under other circumstances, Mr. Rumsfeld might have smiled and cracked a joke. Today, he sat silent and stoic as the protesters were ejected. But as the questioning went on, Mr. Rumsfeld grew more relaxed, occasionally sparring with his questioners.

When Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, pressed him on why he had not come forward sooner with news of the now-infamous pictures, Mr. Rumsfeld replied, "Well, Senator Collins, I wish I had done that. I said that in my remarks."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Bush administration's Iraq campaign, said, "In the Middle East and too often today, the symbol of America is not the Statue of Liberty; it's the prisoner standing on a box wearing a dark cape and a dark hood on his head, wires attached to his body, afraid that he's going to be electrocuted."

"These incidences of torture and abuse resulted in a catastrophic crisis of credibility for our nation," Mr. Kennedy said.

The secretary also expressed his regrets to members of the Senate committee for not informing them sooner of the full extent and seriousness of the Abu Ghraib abuses.

"Let me be clear," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "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."

Members of the committee, Republicans as well as Democrats, have expressed extreme annoyance recently over not being informed about the explosive photographs depicting abuse that included sexual humilation — a particular outrage in Arab culture.

Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who is first in Senate seniority and is recognized as a jealous guardian of the prerogatives of Congress, said the administration's slowness in fully informing lawmakers of the prison abuses was part of a pattern of "arrogance and a disdain for Congress."

"I see misplaced bravado, and an unwillingness to admit mistakes," Mr. Byrd said. "I see fingerpointing and excuses."

President Bush has expressed his deep regrets over the misconduct. His aides also let it be known that he had personally admonished Mr. Rumsfeld for not informing him sooner about the Abu Ghraib episode.

Mr. Bush, campaign today in Dubuque, Iowa, said, "The abhorrent pictures on our TV screens have stained our honor. They do not reflect the nature of the men and women we have sent overseas. We've sent decent, compassionate, honorable, sacrificing citizens."

Today's Senate session was broadcast by at least two Arab television networks.

Senator John Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Senate committee, opened the session with a pledge to probe the facts of the prison affair exhaustively "no matter where they lead, no matter how long it may be."

The committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, said the "depraved and despicable" acts committed by some American soldiers had made the United States less secure by compromising its most precious asset: its moral values.

The soldiers responsible for the abuses must be found out and punished, Mr. Levin said. "So must anyone up the chain of command."