Tuesday, May 11, 2004

A defiant Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday defended the military’s handling of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and denied a “culture of deception” exists.

“The military, not the media, discovered these abuses. The military reported the abuses, not the media,” Mr. Rumsfeld said during a town hall-style meeting with Pentagon employees.

An Army specialist who learned of illegal actions of military police at the prison reported the abuses “and by the next day investigations were authorized,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

After the abuses were reported in the chain of command, he said, U.S. Central Command announced “to the world, to the public” without prodding from Washington that a probe was under way.

“They acted responsibly and told the world that there were charges, allegations of abuses,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

“Here at home, though we shudder at Abu Ghraib, remember that while we are seeing the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers, Americans live by the rule of law, and our military justice system is working,” he said.

The Pentagon announced its investigation of the abuse Jan. 16 and announced March 20 that charges had been filed against six soldiers purportedly involved in the abuse.

Critics in Congress and some news media have called for Mr. Rumsfeld to resign over the scandal, contending that the defense secretary was slow to act on the matter.

Pentagon officials, however, said the Army report containing photographs of chained, naked Iraqi prisoners did not reach the Pentagon until April 30 or May 1.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the investigation will take time and investigators must conduct the probe carefully “to protect the rights of the innocent.”

“Our enemies will exploit this episode to prove their negative views of our country, but then they were doing that before this episode,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “We see repeated instances where untruths about our country and about our conduct are put out on the regional media.”

Mr. Rumsfeld said that the military’s handling of the Abu Ghraib probe shows that “those who make allegations of a culture of deception, of intimidation or cover-up need to be extremely careful about such accusations.”

“The facts so far demonstrate, to me at least, that from the enlisted ranks to the officer corps, when those allegations came to light members of our armed forces immediately launched investigations and sought to uncover wrongdoing,” he said.

Instead of being inhibited by the military system, “a number of the people in it, far from being intimidated or afraid to do the right thing, they in fact did the right thing,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

“One individual just made a conscious decision when he had evidence of wrongdoing to take it to the right people and do the right thing, and that is how this all came out.”

Army Spec. Joseph Darby, 24, a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, exposed the prisoner abuse in January by putting a note underneath the door of his commander and described the mistreatment of the prisoners.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the discovery of the abuse was a “body blow” caused by “a few who have betrayed our values by their conduct.”

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Mr. Rumsfeld at the meeting.

“There’s not a single human being in this government, and certainly not in this building, who works harder or is more dedicated or is a better patriot than is Secretary Rumsfeld,” Gen. Pace said. “It’s my great honor and distinction to serve on his team.”

The remark drew a standing ovation for the defense chief.

Mr. Rumsfeld answered questions from several employees and noted that he would take questions “except for the press,” noting “I’ve done enough of that lately.”

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