Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sen. Richard J. Durbin yesterday said he was “sorry” after parsing words for a week about his remarks comparing U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to those of Nazi and Soviet regimes. He apologized on the Senate floor.

“I’m sorry if anything that I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time,” said Mr. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

“I’m also sorry if anything I said in any way cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military. I went to Iraq just a few months ago,” he said, pausing and appearing to tear up at one point during the five-minute speech. “When you look at the eyes of the soldiers you see your son and daughter. They are the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect for them. Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line. To them, I extend my heartfelt apologies.”

Senators from both parties said Mr. Durbin’s apology should be the end of the controversy that began a week ago.

On June 14, Mr. Durbin, after reading an FBI agent’s letter describing interrogation techniques at the military detention center at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said on the Senate floor, “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. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.”

His remarks were condemned by veterans groups, the Anti-Defamation League and even Richard Daley, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, who earlier yesterday called on Mr. Durbin to apologize.

Mr. Durbin on Friday issued a statement expressing his “sincere regret if what I said caused anyone to misunderstand my true feelings” of support for the troops. He said yesterday he thought that clarified the issue, but realized that “to many people it was still unclear.”

Democrats had rallied to Mr. Durbin’s defense, with most calling the attention to the remarks a Republican attempt to divert attention from their agenda.

And early yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi refused to denounce Mr. Durbin’s initial comments. At a press conference she called to demand creation of a commission to investigate detainee abuses at U.S. facilities throughout the world, she said Mr. Durbin’s comments are one reason to have a commission.

“The fact is that Mr. Durbin’s comments point to the need for an independent commission,” she said. “What are the facts, how do we make judgments about how to change what is going on there, close Guantanamo or clean it up, but the status quo … is not acceptable.”

In his floor speech yesterday, Mr. Durbin did defend his remarks from a week ago, calling them “legitimate concerns that others have raised, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, about the policies of this administration and whether they truly do serve our needs to make America safer and more secure.”

Throughout the last week, Mr. Durbin and fellow Democrats continued to blame the press, talk radio and The Washington Times in particular for focusing on his initial statement.

“The Washington Times, a very conservative, Republican newspaper, puts a front-page story about me on there. The White House lashes out to me, and pretty soon the mainstream media, it just follows,” Mr. Durbin told WGN radio in Chicago on Friday.

Yesterday, after his floor speech, Mr. Durbin said he did not want to talk about that charge. “I’m not going to go into that,” he said.

Immediately after Mr. Durbin’s remarks, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said that should be the end of the discussion. Mr. Lieberman said trying “to fester this some more is doing a disservice to the Senate and to our country.” Mr. McCain said the apology was the “right thing, the courageous thing, and I believe we can put this issue behind us.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, released a brief statement calling Mr. Durbin’s apology “a necessary and appropriate step.”

Sen. Trent Lott, who lost his job as majority leader in 2002 for comments at the 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, said hours before Mr. Durbin’s latest apology that he should consider resigning as minority whip over his remarks.

Senate Republicans pushed Mr. Lott out of his leadership post in December 2002 after saying that the U.S. could have avoided “all these problems” if the then-segregationist from South Carolina had been elected president in 1948.

At the time, the Mississippi Republican issued an apology, saying his kind words about Mr. Thurmond were not an “endorsement of his positions 50 years ago,” and a “poor choice of words” — the latter the exact phrase Mr. Durbin used yesterday.

“I had my problem, but mine was totally in jest,” Mr. Lott said yesterday afternoon. “His has serious consequences. I think he should consider resigning from his leadership position.”

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