- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday acknowledged “my failing” in handling the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal, as he apologized to the victims and held out the possibility he would resign if he could no longer effectively lead the war on terror.

“I failed to identify the catastrophic damage that the allegations of abuse could do to our operations in the theater, to the safety of our troops in the field, the cause to which we are committed,” a contrite Mr. Rumsfeld told the Senate and House Armed Services committees in separate hearings.

Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, whether he would resign if he could no longer be effective, Mr. Rumsfeld said the possibility was something “I’ve given a lot of thought to.”

“Needless to say, if I felt I could not be effective, I’d resign in a minute.”

Mr. Rumsfeld said he would not resign “simply because people try to make a political issue out of it,” in an apparent reference to several liberal Democrats who have called on him to quit in this presidential election year.

No Republican has made such a request.

Mr. Rumsfeld turned to a more combative posture when attacked by Democrats during his six hours of testimony.

He clashed with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and a fierce war critic. After Mr. Byrd said the Pentagon was slow to disclose the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, Mr. Rumsfeld said:

“The idea that this is a story that was broken by the media is simply not the fact. This was presented by the Central Command [in March] to the world so that they would be aware of the fact that these had been filed. What was not known is that a classified report with photographs would be given to the press before it arrived in the Pentagon.”

That report, done by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, recounted the abuse and harshly criticized Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who led the 800th Military Police Brigade in Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld said he plans to offer some type of compensation to the Iraqi victims of abuse and will have senior former government officials from the Pentagon Defense Policy Board advise him on whether an overall independent investigation is required.

The Pentagon is bracing for even more scandalous snapshots. Personnel overseeing prisoners took hundreds of pictures and may have made a video. Only a relatively few pictures have surfaced so far. One question is whether any new pictures will implicate additional personnel or whether they are additional photos of the same people committing the same offenses.

“You can be certain more are coming out,” the defense secretary said.

After the hearing, Mr. Graham told reporters, “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.

House and Senate Republicans almost unanimously backed the embattled secretary, but he did face stinging questions from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Mr. McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner in Vietnam, asked whether military intelligence or the commanders of the military oversee prison guards and what the MPs’ instructions were.

Mr. Rumsfeld said authority over the guards had “shifted over a period of time.”

Criticized for not warning the White House or Congress as the prison scandal burgeoned, then exploded with stark photographs of abuse on CBS’s “60 Minutes II,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, “When these allegations first surfaced, I failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a matter of such gravity to the highest levels, including leaders of Congress.”

While the incidents happened a lower levels of the chain of command, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility.”

Committee Chairman John Warner, Virginia Republican, lamented the fact that Mr. Rumsfeld never picked up the phone and told him what was coming. After the hearing, he endorsed Mr. Rumsfeld’s staying on the job.

It was an extraordinary testimony from a strong-willed defense leader not normally given to acknowledging mistakes. But he also pressed the point that his commanders in Baghdad began investigating the atrocities the moment a complaint was filed, as called for by Army regulations, without any prodding from politicians or the press.

Six Army military police members face criminal charges for their roles in forcing naked Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison to pose as if participating in group sex. Another six personnel have been reprimanded. The Army Reserve general who ran Abu Ghraib, as head of the 800th Military Police Brigade, received a letter of admonishment.

Just two years ago, Mr. Rumsfeld was one of America’s most popular figures. His take-charge style after the September 11 attacks and his entertaining press conferences endeared him to many Americans.

The public apparently still regards him highly. A new poll by ABC News/Washington Post showed that 69 percent of Americans want him to stay on the job.

Democrats have seized on the abuse as a campaign issue. They say it is an example of what they call another failure in the post-Saddam Hussein phase of liberating Iraq.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who covets the kind of intelligence his officers can garner from captured Iraqi insurgents, for the first time expressed sympathy.

“I feel terrible about what happen to these Iraqi detainees,” he testified. “They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong.”

The abuse at Abu Ghraib occurred in two cell blocks in the 7,000-prisoner facility. Two cell blocks, 1A and 1B, hold about 200 of some of the most hard-core insurgents thought to have vital information on the whereabouts of Iraqi fighters killing American troops.

The prisoners were interrogated by teams of military intelligence officers, analysts and interpreters. Some of the accused MPs have said the abuse, which included attaching wires to one Iraqi and telling him he would be electrocuted, was requested by military intelligence officers.

The misconduct occurred from October to December 2003. The transgressions appear at this point to have been limited to a relatively small number of soldiers working the night shift on those two cellblocks.

Mr. Rumsfeld indicated he would support a decision by an incoming Iraqi government to tear down Abu Ghraib, a favorite torture center for Saddam and his henchman. “It’s not a bad idea,” he said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, was the only member to contrast the U.S. contrition over prisoner abuse with the lack of apologies from the Arab world when Muslims commit far greater atrocities.

” I cannot help but say … that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized,” said Mr. Lieberman, a strong supporter of going to war to oust Saddam.

“Those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq, working to liberate Iraq and protect our security, have never apologized.”

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