Refusing to quit, Rumsfeld takes blame for abuse

More evidence of Iraqis being mistreated has yet to be disclosed, he warns

`I take full responsibility'

Crisis In Iraq

May 08, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, resisting calls to resign, apologized to Iraqis who were abused and humiliated by U.S. soldiers and warned that even more disturbing photos and videos of prisoner mistreatment have yet to be disclosed.

"It's going to get still more terrible, I'm afraid, because there is still a good deal more pictures and video," Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee during a long day of high-profile televised hearings in which he faced sharp questioning.

NBC News reported last night that some of the new photos show U.S. soldiers beating an Iraqi prisoner almost to death, having sex with a female detainee and "acting inappropriately with a dead body."

Testifying before separate hearings of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, Rumsfeld accepted blame for the prisoner abuses. He also expressed regret for not informing Congress sooner of the gravity of the allegations that have sparked calls among Democrats for his resignation.

"These events occurred on my watch," he told the Senate committee. "As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them, and I take full responsibility."

Rumsfeld said he extended his "deepest apology" to the abused prisoners, and said he is seeking a way to compensate them. He also announced the appointment of an independent panel of former officials who will conduct an inquiry into the allegations and how the Pentagon handled them.

His testimony - broadcast live at the end of a week during which the abuse allegations dominated the news - came the day after President Bush apologized for the prisoner mistreatment and said Rumsfeld would remain as his defense secretary.

Under questioning from Republicans and Democrats about his future in the administration, Rumsfeld acknowledged that he had given "a lot of thought" to whether he could still be an effective defense secretary.

"If I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute," he said. "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue of it."

Facing lawmakers, Rumsfeld promised that those responsible for the abuse would be punished and that he would act to make sure such conduct never occurred again.

Several protestors interrupted his Senate testimony with shouts of "Fire Rumsfeld! War criminal!" before being escorted away by Capitol Police.

Lawmakers pressed Rumsfeld and a group of military witnesses, led by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about conditions at Abu Ghraib, the prison near Baghdad where the abuse took place and military policies that might have led to the conduct.

Little new information came to light during the hearings. Rumsfeld delivered somber apologies but at times shed his contrite tone for a more defensive stance during six hours of questioning. Still, the sessions gave lawmakers a chance to vent their revulsion at the prison abuse crisis, and their anger and frustration about discovering it through the news media.

News of the scandal surfaced last week, when CBS' 60 Minutes II aired graphic photographs showing U.S. soldiers posing cheerfully beside Iraqi prisoners in sexually humiliating poses. Seven soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company, based near Cumberland, have been criminally charged in the abuse; seven of their superiors have received administrative punishments.

"The facts I now have from a number of sources represent as serious an issue of military misconduct as I have ever observed," said Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a former Navy secretary. "This degree of breakdown in military leadership and discipline represents an extremely rare chapter in the otherwise proud history of our armed forces."

Senators focused their questions not on the accused soldiers, but on how and why the mistreatment occurred and how breakdowns in the chain of command could have allowed it.

"Those abusive actions do not appear to be aberrant conduct by individuals, but part of a conscious method of extracting information," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Senate committee's senior Democrat. "If true, the planners of this process are at least as guilty as those who carried out the abuses."

Rumsfeld deflected questions from Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, about who was in charge at Abu Ghraib, and what instructions had been given to the military police guarding prisoners there.

McCain said he was "very disappointed" that Rumsfeld could not answer the questions. He said the defense secretary must move more quickly to defuse a raging crisis that has inflamed Arab critics and undercut the U.S. position in Iraq.

"We've got to get it all out," McCain said after the hearing.

"The sooner that all of this is out, the sooner the American people can recover, and we can heal these wounds that have affected the military and begin restoring our image in the Arab world and focus on a conflict that I believe we must win."

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