WASHINGTON - A steady stream of apprehensive lawmakers yesterday went up an elevator in the Capitol to S407, a secure room where classified briefings are held, to watch a slide show of digital photos and video clips none of them wanted to see. They came out visibly shaken and grave-faced.
Using words such as "disgusting" and "appalling," the members of Congress clearly had mixed views on whether 300 more photos of abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. soldiers should be made public.
About a thousand other photos did not particularly seem relevant to the scandal, several lawmakers said.
Some Democrats, including Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the photos should be public and that they proved to him there was an organized policy of abusing prisoners to get information. Some Republicans strongly disagreed. If there was any single reaction, it seemed to be determination to find the answers to what happened and not let a few soldiers become scapegoats if there was a trickle-down policy of abusing prisoners.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, called to testify about defense spending, defended U.S. policies of using such tactics as sleep deprivation, withholding food, lying to prisoners, and forbidding them to sit, saying Pentagon lawyers have determined such methods are legal under the Geneva Convention.
But after seeing the photos, some lawmakers wondered if such sanctioned tactics were used as a rationale for practices that got out of hand and became illegal torture.
Sen. Bill Frist (R., Tenn.), a surgeon and the Senate majority leader, said grimly, "What we saw is appalling, very, very appalling." He said the videos and photos "go beyond" what
the public already has seen "in terms of the various activities that are depicted." He declined to elaborate.
Pausing in front of a phalanx of news photographers and reporters, many Republicans said they see little point to releasing more pictures and inflaming the situation in Iraq even more. Some also brought up the issue of the need to use the photos as evidence in trials of the soldiers and worried about the risk of jeopardizing those trials.
Sen. John Warner (R., Va.,), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has taken the lead in investigating the abuses, said making the photos public might endanger more men and women serving in the armed forces in Iraq. On the floor of the Senate, he said it is important to err on the side of caution and that "at this time, it would not be wise" to release the images.
He cited the beheading an American, Nicholas Berg, by terrorists who said they were seeking revenge for the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the U.S.-controlled prison near Baghdad.
Special care was taken yesterday to make certain the photographs did not get out of the secure room. They were taken to the Capitol by soldiers and were placed on tables in the guarded room. After three hours, they were returned to the Pentagon.
After seeing the photos yesterday, some lawmakers said the world is watching to see if the United States is completely honest about the abuse cases or will cover up the extent of the abuse.
Senator Levin said even though the photos were more explicit than have been seen so far, the pictures should be released by the Pentagon sooner rather than later. He said more harm would be done by having the photos leak out and that the country must "clean house up as many floors as far up as it goes."
He said the photos prove to him this was methodical and sanctioned torture by military intelligence officials and civilian contractors and that it was not just the fault of a few people.
Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) said the additional images of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. military personnel were disgusting and show the need for swift investigation. He spent 30 minutes going through the photographs and videotapes and said he saw about half the material.
"It was pretty disgusting and sickening," said Senator DeWine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It's just hard to believe that you have some U.S. troops that would do these things."
The private screening marked the latest turn in a scandal that has prompted President Bush to apologize to the victims and Democrats to demand the dismissal of Mr. Rumsfeld.
Ohio's other senator, Republican George Voinovich, was in meetings all day and did not view the images, a spokesman said.
On one table in the secure room were photos that will be used in the upcoming trials of at least seven soldiers, showing torture, nudity, and intimidation by dogs, many similar to what the public already has seen. On the other were pornographic photos, many allegedly showing crude, forced sexual situations, homosexual acts, and masturbation that the lawmakers did not have to view if they did not want to see them. Some of them showed Iraqi female prisoners forced to disrobe. A few reportedly showed sexual relations between U.S. soldiers, apparently taunting Iraqi prisoners.
Although originally only senators were to view the photos, the decision was made to permit members of the House to see them as well.
Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Select Intelligence Committee, said the photos were "stomach-turning" and added, "I saw cruel, sadistic torture." She said one of the most disturbing images to her was of an Iraqi prisoner banging his head against the wall, apparently trying to hurt himself out of despair.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R., Colo.) said in anger, "I don't know how the hell these people got into our Army."
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