Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist yesterday demanded that Sen. Richard J. Durbin make a “formal apology” on the floor of the Senate for comparing U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to Nazi and Soviet regimes and that he strike his remarks from the Congressional Record.
In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, said previous bids by the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat to clarify his remarks didn’t go far enough.
“Subsequent statements by Senator Durbin indicate only that he was regretful if people misunderstood his remarks,” Mr. Frist said. “We do not believe his remarks were misunderstood.”
The letter is the latest in a wave of criticism against the Illinois Democrat, which yesterday was joined by the Anti-Defamation League and a White House spokesman and, over the weekend, by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a prisoner of war in Vietnam who was tortured in captivity.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley called the Frist letter “pathetic.”
“Republicans don’t have an agenda, so they are trying however they can to pull attention away from the real problems facing the country,” Mr. Manley said. “It is interesting to note that reporters got the letter before we did, as far as I can tell.”
Last week, Mr. Durbin read a portion of an FBI memo that described a prisoner being held at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was chained to the floor and subjected to loud rap music. The air conditioner was alternately turned very high so that the terror suspect was “shaking with cold” or turned off so the temperature in his cell was “well over 100 degrees.”
“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,” Mr. Durbin said.
After the furor began last week, Mr. Durbin said Friday that he had since “learned from my statement that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood” and that he “sincerely regrets if what I said caused anyone to misunderstand my true feelings.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said Mr. Durbin’s apology “was not sufficient” and contrasted the Democrat’s reaction to that of Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, who was criticized by the ADL for likening the use of the filibuster on judges to Nazi tactics.
“Senator Santorum apologized,” Mr. Foxman said. “Senator Durbin’s explanation is not an apology, and I think an apology is in order.”
Mr. McCain also demanded over the weekend that Mr. Durbin apologize and said he “should be required to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago.’”
“I think that Senator Durbin owes the Senate an apology — I don’t know if censure would be in order — but an apology, because it does a great disservice to men and women who suffered in the gulag and in Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields,’” Mr. McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“To tar American servicemen and women with a brush that applies to the gulag or to the killing fields is a great disservice to the men and women in the military who are serving honorably down there,” he said.
The White House, which has largely avoided talking about Mr. Durbin’s remarks, weighed in with condemnation yesterday but stopped short of suggesting that any action be taken.
“I know many feel his most recent response to their outrage does not go far enough,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “Many Americans, particularly veterans and our men and women in uniform, are rightly outraged by such a comparison. The comments were a real disservice to those who serve and have served.”
In his letter, Mr. Frist said Mr. Durbin’s words “exacerbate the terrorist threat against Americans by providing ‘evidence’ of what they claim are reasons for attacking us.”
As of last night, a story with the headline “U.S. senator stands by Nazi remark” was still the second-most e-mailed story on the Web page of Al Jazeera, a network that the U.S. government accuses of spreading anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.
But Democratic leaders said they consider the issue closed and will not talk about it any more.
Asked about the reaction to Mr. Durbin’s comments and his apology, Mr. Reid said he was through talking about the controversy.
“The American people have really had it up to here with what the president is doing and not doing and what the Republican-led Congress is doing,” Mr. Reid said, pointing to a copy of the New York Times in his hands that had a front-page story about the falling poll numbers of President Bush.
“The statements made by Senator Durbin speak for themselves. I stand by the statement he made,” he said. “We are not going to discuss this any more.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, refused to address the ADL criticism of Mr. Durbin, saying only that Republicans “will do anything for a diversion.”
Pressed to give his opinion of the matter, Mr. Schumer turned his back on reporters and ignored the questions.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, was an exception, directly rejecting Mr. Durbin’s Nazi analogy.
“I wouldn’t have used it, but I take a particular view,” said Mr. Lautenberg, who is Jewish and a World War II veteran. “The cruelty and barbarism that was used [by the Nazis] can never be duplicated again, we hope to God. The mass killing of thousands of people and the dehumanizing of them before they put them to death was as barbaric as one could imagine.”
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.