Pentagon officials yesterday said they bungled the public relations aspect of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld prepares to testify before congressional hearings today.
But the military officials also say that from a legal standpoint the case was handled correctly by commanders in Baghdad.
Once Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, learned of the abuse in January, he ordered criminal and administrative investigations that already have led to planned courts-martial, reprimands and prison reforms.
The 53-page administrative investigation by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, completed Feb. 26, had not made it up the military’s bureaucratic chain of command to Mr. Rumsfeld by the time graphic photos of the abuse appeared last week on CBS. The stark images of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqis elevated the plot from somewhat routine complaints of abuse to a sensational story with worldwide ramifications.
“Nobody really got a flavor of what this thing was,” said a defense official, noting that the copies of the photographs, apparently taken by the perpetrators themselves, were not included in the report. “There was no decision to hide this. This thing leaked before it went up the chain.”
However, Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, had become aware of the photos and had persuaded CBS to delay the broadcast. Some in the Pentagon are asking why at that point the Pentagon did not warn President Bush that a shocking story was about to break.
“That was the breakdown — right there,” the senior official said.
Officials described Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff as in “full crisis mode” as it helped prepare testimony for the defense secretary to deliver to the Senate and House Armed Services committees.
Mr. Rumsfeld received briefings yesterday on all phases of multiple, ongoing investigations. He was rechecking his timelines to see what he was told and when.
Officials privately concede they should have requested a copy of Gen. Taguba’s report, sanitized it of classified information and then held a special press briefing. There, officials could have detailed what had been discovered and what steps were being taken to correct it.
Pentagon civilians say that a military that advocates pre-emptive attacks on terrorists should have known to practice pre-emptive public relations to get its version of events out first.
“We just should have gotten it out, rather than let it come out the way it did,” said a senior civilian at the Pentagon.
This official said it is fortunate the administration never signed onto the new International Criminal Court. If it had, the judges likely would have claimed jurisdiction, investigated and brought charges against Americans.
“Everybody is unhappy with Rumsfeld, the way he has handled this. It’s all about a lack of disclosure,” a senior Republican Senate staffer said.
Several Democrats, including the House minority leader, have called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign in recent days, so the defense secretary needs Republican allies.
But according to congressional staffers, Mr. Rumsfeld has alienated some powerful Republican lawmakers with his brash style and his decisions to curtail defense programs without first notifying members whose districts lost jobs.
Senators, like the White House, learned of the abuse not from the Pentagon but from “60 Minutes II,” which broadcast photographs of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, where Saddam Hussein liked to send prisoners for torture and mutilation.
“One of the most bizarre things about the whole issue is the department has been up here numerous times and never said a word [to senators] about it,” the Senate staffer said.
But a senior Pentagon official said last night that while individual lawmakers were not notified about the photographs, staffers on Congress’ four military committees were told about the pictures. The official described Mr. Rumsfeld as “upbeat” and eager to tell Congress about all the steps that have been taken to rectify the mistreatment of Iraqis.
The photos are underscoring complaints that Mr. Rumsfeld and his staff botched planning for post-Saddam Iraq by failing to predict the persistent, deadly insurgency and, in some analysts’ opinions, by failing to provide sufficient ground troops.
There is also second-guessing about why the Pentagon did not simply level Abu Ghraib, a symbol of Saddam’s oppression, instead of pouring millions of dollars into its rebirth.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, a TV military analyst who participated in a conference call Wednesday with senior defense officials, said the military was “four months late in announcing” the abuse charges.
The officials “were going through all the investigations that were under way and we were telling them it’s a PR disaster,” Mr. Maginnis said. “They covered it up because there wasn’t any effort to explain how serious the consequences might be for the military. It’s virtually impossible, given the nature of the offenses, to thoroughly explain to the American people except by releasing the pictures, which they didn’t do.”