The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat has compared the U.S. military’s treatment of a suspected al Qaeda terrorist at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay with the regimes of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot, three of history’s most heinous dictators, whose regimes killed millions.
In a speech on the Senate floor late Tuesday, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, castigated the American military’s actions by reading an e-mail from an FBI agent.
The agent complained to higher-ups that one al Qaeda suspect was chained to the floor, kept in an extremely cold air-conditioned cell and forced to hear loud rap music. The Justice Department is investigating.
About 9 million persons, including 6 million Jews, died in Hitler’s death camps, 2.7 million persons died in Stalin’s gulags and 1.7 million Cambodians died in Pol Pot’s scourge of his country.
No prisoners have died at Guantanamo, and the Pentagon has acknowledged five instances of abuse or irreverent handling of the Koran, the holy book of Muslims.
After reading the e-mail, Mr. Durbin said, “If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.”
Mr. Durbin also likened the treatment of terror suspects at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to authorize the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“It took us almost 40 years for us to acknowledge that we were wrong, to admit that these people should never have been imprisoned. It was a shameful period in American history,” Mr. Durbin said. “I believe the torture techniques that have been used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and other places fall into that same category.”
The White House yesterday reacted angrily to Mr. Durbin’s remarks.
“It’s reprehensible, as Defense Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld said, to suggest that the Guantanamo Bay facility is anything like a gulag or a mad regime or Pol Pot,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy told The Washington Times.
“It is reprehensible, has no place in the current debate, and as we’ve seen over several years, the detainees in Guantanamo Bay are being treated humanely,” he said. “What this is is a disservice to any man and woman serving in the U.S. military who’s putting their life on the line each day, because they’re trying to paint all military with a broad brush because of the actions of perhaps a few bad apples, who are being punished severely.”
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld spokesman Larry Di Rita said of Mr. Durbin’s remarks: “I didn’t hear what he said, but any such comparison would obviously be outrageous and not remotely connected with reality.”
Mr. Durbin did not back off his characterization in a statement to The Times last night.
“No one, including the White House, can deny the statement I read on the Senate floor was made by an FBI agent describing the torture of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay,” he said. “That torture was reprehensible and totally inconsistent with the values we hold dear in America.
“This administration should apologize to the American people for abandoning the Geneva Conventions and authorizing torture techniques that put our troops at risk and make Americans less secure.”
U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the Guantanamo prison, is conducting an investigation of complaints from al Qaeda detainees. The Justice Department is investigating complaints from FBI agents who visited the prison.
Mr. Rumsfeld in December 2002 approved a list of tougher interrogation tactics for Guantanamo that officials thought fell short of torture.
Some were used on Mohammed al-Qahtani, a would-be hijacker in the September 11 attacks who provided important information on Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, the Pentagon says.
Mr. Rumsfeld rescinded much of his interrogation order a month later after some government lawyers expressed doubts about the tactics’ effectiveness.
President Bush decided not to grant terror suspects prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions. Instead, the administration designated them illegal enemy combatants, but said they would be treated in accordance with Geneva rules. Each prisoner has received a review from a prison board, while federal courts sort out their rights under U.S. law.
In using such stark language Tuesday night, Mr. Durbin was repeating a theme that the political left has used in recent months: making “torture” the defining issue in how Mr. Bush is waging the war against Islamic terrorism.
Mr. Durbin said, “I am confident, sadly confident, as I stand here, that decades from now, people will look back and say: ‘What were they thinking? America, this great, kind leader of a nation, treated people who were detained and imprisoned, interrogated people in the crudest way?’ ”
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.