Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sen. Richard J. Durbin’s comparison of the treatment of al Qaeda prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Nazi and Soviet gulag atrocities was sharply criticized by constituents and newspapers in his home state.

Mr. Durbin’s accusations drew a storm of voter complaints in Illinois, his home state, editorial rebuke by its biggest newspaper and an uneasiness in his party over the potentially damaging political fallout. One state Democratic operative called the charges “inflammatory.”

The fiercely negative reaction forced Mr. Durbin late Friday to say that he regretted making the comparison, but his remarks remained a source of discomfort for a party whose leaders have been on the defensive lately over heated and sometimes personal charges they have made against the Republicans and the Bush administration.

The Democrats who agreed to comment Friday flatly rejected Mr. Durbin’s parallel with the death camps that killed millions, saying such comparisons were historically inaccurate and, some said, threatened to divert attention away from important national-security issues.

“Any efforts to make an analogy between Stalin’s gulag and Guantanamo is absurd on its face and also harmful in the war on terror because there is already an inclination to believe the worst about us,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution national-security analyst who backed Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, in last year’s presidential campaign.

“That kind of rhetoric concerns me. There’s no way you can make that parallel,” said Richard Stallings, the Idaho Democratic Party chairman and former congressman. “There are real issues we should be discussing, and here we are making comparisons to Hitler and the gulag. Those statements are detracting from what the party and the nation ought to be talking about.”

New Mexico’s Democratic state party chairman, John Wertheim, and Arizona party chairman Jim Pederson similarly rejected Mr. Durbin’s choice of words. “I do not agree with the parallel that Senator Durbin drew, because I think that analogies to the Nazis and the Soviet gulag system must be reserved for extraordinary evil,” he said. Mr. Pederson called the senator’s words “inflammatory.”

Mr. Durbin has been one of the severest critics of the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and, particularly, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. His latest comparisons of the U.S. military detention facility to Nazi concentration camps and Soviet forced-labor camps triggered a flood of phone calls to Republican state headquarters in Chicago and a wave of critical newspaper reaction.

“It just seemed to snowball after Durbin’s Senate speech Tuesday night. We received probably 70 to 80 phone calls from all around the country from people complaining about his remarks,” said Matthew Leffingwell, communications director for the Illinois Republican Party. “Many said they called Durbin’s office, but that when they started to complain about his remarks, they just hung up on them.”

The Chicago Tribune, the biggest paper in Mr. Durbin’s state, accused the senator of inflating his rhetoric to attract attention.

“Durbin’s comparison of U.S. interrogators to governments that together killed millions of people makes him look desperate for attention. Well, he’s created a lot of attention about Dick Durbin. We suspect that was the goal all along,” the Tribune said in its editorial Friday.

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