The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman yesterday accused Sen. Richard J. Durbin of insulting American soldiers with a “grievous error in judgment” by comparing U.S. treatment of al Qaeda suspects to the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot, and demanded that the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat apologize.
The rebuke followed a similar rebuke by the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who called Mr. Durbin “totally out of line.”
Republican lawmakers lined up to condemn the remarks as making the war on terror more dangerous for American troops.
Some were particularly angry about the Al Jazeera Arab-language news station, which had posted Mr. Durbin’s Nazi comparison made in a Tuesday night floor speech.
“That’s horrible. That’s our worst nightmare,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, about the posting by the network, which the administration accuses of stirring up anti-Americanism.
In a Tuesday night speech to the Senate, after reading an e-mail from a FBI agent, 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 as the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.”
The scolding of Mr. Durbin by Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, set off a tense debate on the Senate floor that lasted more than an hour.
Mr. Warner, joined by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, repeatedly chastised Mr. Durbin for likening interrogation techniques at the Pentagon-run prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to three 20th-century dictators who killed tens of millions of innocents.
A clearly uncomfortable Mr. Durbin refused to apologize.
He blamed the “right-wing media” for the flap, and read his words from Tuesday’s Congressional Record to show its “context.” He said the real issue was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld permitting rough interrogation techniques in the war on terror.
But clearly Democrats felt the pressure.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, came to the floor to defend his chief deputy and to lash out at press reports and the White House, which earlier in the day called Mr. Durbin’s remarks “reprehensible.”
“The noise machine of the far right never stops and it’s gotten so much more in operation in the last few weeks,” he said. “This is all a distraction by the White House.”
But Mr. Reid did not directly address Mr. Durbin’s gulag comparison. He was followed by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who spent more than 10 minutes recognizing Father’s Day.
Then Republican Sens. John Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama further denounced Mr. Durbin’s comments and echoed the calls for an apology.
Mr. Warner began the Senate debate with a floor speech in which he read from a front-page account of Mr. Durbin’s remarks in yesterday’s editions of The Washington Times.
Mr. Warner said, “To equate actions of the men and women of the armed forces … with regard to their services down there in Guantanamo maintaining the detainees to the genocidal acts of murder and repression of the Nazis, of the Soviet gulag, of Pol Pot, I think is insulting to our men and women in uniform.
“The danger that loose comments such as that, comparisons which have no basis in fact or history, could do harm to the men and women serving wherever they are in the world today in this war on terrorism. Because this is the type of thing that is picked up and is utilized by press antithetical to the interest of the United States and [who] distort in their own way.
“I feel apologies are in order to the men and women of the armed forces.”
Mr. Durbin quickly appeared on the Senate floor but offered no apology. He read that part of his speech again. He said he had read earlier from an FBI’s agent letter on harsh treatment of suspected terrorists and had compared such treatment to what would be found under the Soviet gulag, Nazis and Pol Pot.
“To suggest I’m criticizing American servicemen, I am not,” Mr. Durbin said. “I don’t know who was responsible for this. But the FBI agent made this report … I was attributing this form of interrogation to repressive regimes.
“Now sadly we have a situation here where some in the right wing media have said that I’ve been insulting men and women in uniform. Nothing could be further from the truth. I respect men and women in the uniform.”
Mr. Warner did not accept the explanation. He said the government is now investigating FBI and al Qaeda inmate complaints and it was wrong for Mr. Durbin to read from one agent’s unsubstantiated letter before all the evidence is in.
“There is no verification of the accuracy of that report,” Mr. Warner said. “For you to have come to the floor with just that fragment of a report and then unleashed the words ‘the Nazis’ … It seems to be that was a grievous error in judgment.”
Mr. McConnell then read Mr. Durbin’s references to the Nazis, gulags and Pol Pot and asked, “Does the senator from Illinois stand by these words?”
Mr. Durbin answered: “In this particular incident that I just read from an FBI agent describing in detail the methods that were used on prisoners, was I trying to say that, ‘Isn’t this the kind of thing we see from repressive regimes?’ Yes.”
There was criticism of Mr. Durbin outside the Senate.
The VFW’s commander in chief, John Furgess, said, “The senator was totally out of line for even thinking such thoughts, and we demand he apologize to every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of our country.”
Several Democrats ducked the furor yesterday.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, declined to comment, saying she had not heard Mr. Durbin’s speech. When a reporter read the passage to her, she declined again.
The offices of Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did not answer calls for comment.