Thursday, October 23, 2003

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he is under no pressure from the White House to fire Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, despite President Bush’s public distancing of himself from the general’s remarks about Islam.

“I personally have not had any communication on the subject with the White House,” Mr. Rumsfeld said in an interview at the Pentagon with editors and reporters from The Washington Times. “The only one who has talked to the White House on this subject is from a press standpoint.”

Gen. Boykin, an evangelical Christian who serves as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and special operations, has been quoted as saying that the war against terrorism is a battle between good and evil, with terrorists representing “Satan.”

The comments first came under fire last week when NBC News broadcast video clips of speeches he had made at Christian functions while in uniform.

A Los Angeles Times columnist had secretly recorded the comments during Gen. Boykin’s witnessing in churches in Oklahoma, Oregon and Florida.

Lawrence DiRita, Mr. Rumsfeld’s acting assistant secretary for public affairs, said yesterday that a review of the statements, requested by Gen. Boykin earlier this week, will be conducted by the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General, with support from the inspector general of the Army.

Asked yesterday about what would be necessary to justify any disciplinary action against Gen. Boykin, Mr. Rumsfeld said: “I am not a lawyer.”

“There’s all kinds of rules and regulations and requirements,” he said. “People will look at them and they’ll discuss those and then one will compare his circumstance and those rules and regulations at his request.”

Mr. DiRita yesterday told The Washington Times that before the matter was turned over to the Inspector General’s Office, Pentagon officials had asked NBC and the Los Angeles Times for copies of Gen. Boykin’s statements, but had been refused.

Mr. Rumsfeld said on Tuesday that he has seen only “one of the network tapes,” which “had a lot of very difficult-to-understand words with subtitles which I was not able to verify.”

However, Mr. Bush said Wednesday that the opinion of Gen. Boykin “just doesn’t reflect what the government thinks.”

In one speech, Gen. Boykin referred to an Islamic warlord in Somalia who had 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,” the general said.

During his interview with The Times, Mr. Rumsfeld also fielded questions about other facets of the relationship between Islam and the war on terrorism, including the ongoing Guantanamo Bay espionage probe involving a Muslim chaplain and Arabic translators.

“No matter what department or agency in this government, there are varying techniques for screening and vetting people,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding that nations have had to contend with spies “since the beginning of time.”

“I don’t know that there is a perfectly bulletproof way to vet so that you don’t end up with a spy,” he said.

Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a Guantanamo interpreter arrested in Boston on Sept. 29, is said to have had in his possession a list of names of terrorism suspects mentioned in interrogation sessions with al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at the base. The 31-year-old U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent is being held in Massachusetts pending trial.

Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al Halabi, 24, another interpreter at Guantanamo, also is being held. The Pentagon has identified 32 charges against him, accusing him of collecting more than 180 messages from detainees with plans to pass them to unidentified enemy operatives in Syria.

Army Capt. James J. Yee, 35, a Muslim chaplain stationed at Guantanamo for the detainees, nearly all of whom are Muslims, is charged with disobeying a general order for improperly handling classified information, but not espionage.

The Washington Times has reported that the scarcity of Arabic speakers in the Pentagon’s ranks after the September 11 attacks led to relaxed security standards for hiring translators, and that the Guantanamo probe raises questions about those hirings.

Asked about how the Pentagon has dealt with the need to hire interpreters after the terrorist attacks, Mr. Rumsfeld said military officials in some cases have been doing “quick” background checks.

“What they’ve done is they’ve done quick checks and done some interim clearances, which we do in government all the time,” he said. “Whether that was an element in the fact about these allegations which are currently being made about individuals at Guantanamo, I don’t know because those investigations are under way.”

“Time will tell,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “If there are charges that are proved … we will know a lot more about how that process might have affected their getting into a position where they could do something adversely to America’s interests.”

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