Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he welcomes an internal investigation of a three-star general who spoke of the war on terrorism in religious terms.
Mr. Rumsfeld had said last week that he could not verify the remarks made at a church meeting by Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, a deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and special operations.
“I have since seen one of the network tapes, and it had a lot of very difficult-to-understand words with subtitles which I was not able to verify,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Gen. Boykin yesterday requested a review at the inspector general level, “and I have indicated that if that’s his request, I think it’s appropriate,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
The secretary said it was not clear who will take up the matter, the Pentagon’s inspector general or the Army’s own watchdog.
Gen. Boykin, an evangelical Christian, was quoted as saying that the war against terrorism is a battle between good and evil, with terrorists representing “Satan.”
The three-star general’s remarks have come under fire as inappropriate, and administration officials have distanced themselves from the comments, saying the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam.
Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he had made the point on several occasions that the war against terrorism “is not a war against a religion.”
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Gen. Boykin had mentioned during a recent talk “how sad he was that his comments have caused the furor that they have.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind in talking to him that if he could pick his words more carefully, he would,” Gen. Pace said during an appearance with Mr. Rumsfeld.
“There’s also no doubt in my mind that he does not see this battle as a battle between religions. He sees it as a battle between good and evil. He sees it as the evil being the acts of individuals, not the acts of any religion or affiliation with religion.”
Gen. Pace said Gen. Boykin is “anxious to have the investigator do the investigator’s job.”
Last week, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he did not believe the general’s remarks broke any rules.
Gen. Boykin has said in several recent speeches at evangelical Christian churches that God has put President Bush in the White House to battle terrorists.
In one speech, Gen. Boykin referred to an Islamic guerrilla in Somalia who said U.S. forces would never catch him because Allah would protect him.
“Well, you know what I knew, that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol,” Gen. Boykin said.
Some Muslim and civil-liberties groups said the general’s statements were inappropriate.
The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said the remarks “fly in the face of the pleas of the president and violate the basic principles of tolerance and inclusion that are implicit in the culture of this nation.”
Mr. Bush has referred to al Qaeda terrorists in speeches and public comments as “evildoers,” while repeatedly maintaining at Muslim venues that the war on terrorism is not a religious one.
On Friday, Gen. Boykin released a statement apologizing to all who had taken offense, saying he had not intended to insult Islam.
“My references to Judeo-Christian roots in America or our nation as a Christian nation are historically undeniable,” Gen. Boykin said in the statement.
Asked his opinion of the general’s remarks, Mr. Rumsfeld said: “I’m going to wait for the inspector general to complete their review and come back to us.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said “much of the press” has criticized Gen. Boykin for his personal views, without knowing clearly what he said and in what context.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and the committee’s ranking Democrat, asked Mr. Rumsfeld in a letter to begin a review by the inspector general’s office of whether there was any “inappropriate behavior” by Gen. Boykin.
The letter said “there are limits on the right of expression for service members.”
“Public statements by a senior military official of an inflammatory, offensive nature that would denigrate another religion and which could be construed as bigotry may easily be exploited by enemies of the United States and contribute to an erosion of support within the Arab world and, perhaps, increased risk for members of the U.S. armed forces serving in Muslim nations,” Mr. Warner and Mr. Levin wrote.
Mr. Warner said yesterday that Gen. Boykin should be reassigned from his post during the investigation.
“When you start trying to explain what you did say, you need time out to do a little study,” Mr. Warner said.
The furor surrounding Gen. Boykin’s remarks highlights problems faced by the Bush administration in conducting an ideological war against Islamic terrorists, analysts say.
The president and his top advisers have said that Islamic terrorists have “hijacked” Islam, but there remains a widespread perception in the Muslim world that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is a war against Islam.
Retired Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis, who works with the Army on multinational operations, said Gen. Boykin’s remarks were misinterpreted.
“Many people don’t understand the Christian evangelical culture,” Mr. Maginnis said. “I think his comments were taken out of context.”