WASHINGTON - Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday took responsibility for "un-American" abuses of Iraqi prisoners and apologized for the growing scandal, but he warned members of Congress in a lengthy day on Capitol Hill that more damning photos and videos are still to come.
"[This] is going to get a good deal more terrible, I'm afraid, because there are still more photographs" to come out, Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding he hopes they won't become public but that they probably will.
Called on the carpet for hours by outraged lawmakers in both the Senate and the House who complained they were blindsided by the unfolding scandal and dismayed by how it was handled, Mr. Rumsfeld rejected calls for his resignation, suggesting they were politically motivated. "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it,'' he said.
But he said he has thought about resigning.
"I would resign in a minute if I thought I couldn't be effective,'' he said.
In a new development, Mr. Rumsfeld said he has talked to Department of Defense lawyers about compensating Iraqi detainees who were sexually humiliated and abused in Abu Ghraib prison 20 miles from Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein tortured and executed hundreds of Iraqis for years. Compensation is legal and is "the right thing to do," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Even as members of Congress said they will undertake independent investigations, Mr. Rumsfeld also announced creation of a panel of retired officials to examine the entire scandal and what additional measures may be needed. It is to report in 45 days.
In separate appearances, Mr. Rumsfeld testified before the Senate and House armed services committees, most of whose members were harsh in their condemnation of the acts of abuse and the Pentagon's handling of the scandal.
The Pentagon learned of the abuses Jan. 13 from a soldier in Iraq and put out a press release two days later that an investigation was under way. Six soldiers have been charged; six more have been issued career-ending reprimands. But it did not become an international incident until CBS last week broadcast photos of scandalous behavior in the prison.
Mr. Rumsfeld said no one high up in the Pentagon saw the pictures until now because they were part of evidence in the legal cases against soldiers being court-martialed. Mr. Rumsfeld said that at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, he finally saw the original photos of what one Pentagon official called "debauchery," taken on a digital camera last year.
"If we had seen those photographs, we could have gotten
together with the President and Congress [and informed them of the serious nature of the scandal]. It still would have been terrible."
Mr. Rumsfeld warned there are "a lot more photographs and videos" that haven't yet been seen. "If these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse.
"Beyond abuse of prisoners, there are other photos that depict incidents of physical violence toward prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman. There are many more photographs and indeed some videos. Congress and the American people and the rest of the world need to know this."
Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, one of the first high-level officials to see the photos, said there are two computer discs of photos and that some are even more "graphic" than the public has seen yet.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said: "The American public needs to understand we're talking about rape and murder here. We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience." He did not elaborate.
Mr. Rumsfeld said he did not see the 53-page internal Army report on the abuses that was leaked to the press until Monday. In his defense, Mr. Rumsfeld said there were 18,000 criminal investigations opened in the military last year, resulting in 3,000 courts-martial. He said he still doesn't know how to dig down and find a single case that has the potential for such great damage without jeopardizing fair treatment of those who are accused.
Mr. Rumsfeld conceded the damage to American soldiers and the U.S. reputation around the world "is enormous."
"These events occurred on my watch," he said. "As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility. It is my obligation to evaluate what happened, to make sure that those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice, and to make changes as needed to see that it doesn't happen again.
"I feel terrible about what happened to these 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," he said.
"So 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."
Mr. Rumsfeld, at times rankled by the uncharacteristic grilling and criticism from members who have usually been friendly to him, was accompanied by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and top Pentagon officers and officials.
They all emphasized that at least six investigations are under way into whether there was a system-wide problem of "softening up" Iraqi prisoners through sexual humiliation and physical abuse so they would talk.
But Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, said, "In all my years [in the military], I've never seen anything like this. This is a breakdown of discipline."
General Myers agreed. "Any implication this was driven by the chain of command is absolutely not right. This is a failure of individuals, not a matter of training or poor leadership."
Sen. John S. McCain (R., Ariz.) 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. "Fire Rumsfeld!"
The condemnation of the abuses and the criticism of the Pentagon for not yet knowing how they happened was unrelenting for the entire day.
Sen. John Warner (R., Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a good friend of Mr. Rumsfeld, said the events in the prison were "as serious an issue of military misconduct as I have ever observed.''
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), ranking Democrat on the committee, said, "Our troops are less secure and our nation is less secure because these depraved and despicable actions will fuel the hatred and the fury of those who oppose us.'' He added, "As we seek to bring stability and democracy to Iraq and to fight terrorism globally, our greatest asset as a nation is the moral values that we stand for. Those values have been compromised."
General Myers said he was especially "saddened at the hundreds of thousands of service men and women who are serving or who have served so honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, who have their reputation tarnished and their accomplishments diminished by those few who don't uphold our military's values. I know our service men and women are all suffering unfairly with a collective sense of shame over what has happened."
Mr. Rumsfeld said the abuse isn't a "pattern or policy as it was under Saddam Hussein.'' He said the world will see an open process that is the hallmark of a free, open country as the investigation widens. "We're not an evil society. America is not what's wrong with the world,'' he added.
This report includes information from the Associated Press and New York Times.
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