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Bush Scolds Rumsfeld on Abuse Inquiry

Times Staff Writers

A clash erupted Wednesday between the White House and the Pentagon over the handling of the Iraq prison abuse investigation, with President Bush telling Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that he felt personally blindsided by the scandal and should have been more fully informed about its severity.

Bush rebuked Rumsfeld during an Oval Office meeting, a senior administration official said Wednesday evening. Bush told Rumsfeld that the White House should have been informed about the photographs documenting some of the abuses, which began appearing in the news media late last week, the senior official said.

“The president wasn’t satisfied when he saw those pictures on TV,” the official said, referring to photographs of Iraqi prisoners stripped naked and being abused. “And he made that clear to Secretary Rumsfeld. They should have been brought to his attention, and he shouldn’t have had to learn of them through the media.”

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The official said Rumsfeld agreed with Bush that the manner in which the information reached the president was “not satisfactory.”

However, Pentagon officials contended that Rumsfeld and defense officials moved swiftly to make the seriousness of the charges known within the administration and at news briefings. They said a senior Pentagon official confirmed to a reporter in January the possibility of graphic photographs.

“This was attacked very aggressively,” said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita. “The White House notification was a symptom that everyone knew this was important. I think there was a good understanding that this was a big deal.”

The divergent views of how the Pentagon handled the crisis were unusual in an administration known for discouraging the appearance of dissent and came as Congress moved forward on investigations of the abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Some lawmakers have suggested that Rumsfeld’s future may be in doubt.

“If it goes all the way to Rumsfeld, then he should resign,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). “Who is in charge?”

Even some congressional Republicans were angry with the Pentagon for failing to prepare them for the abuse revelations. Gathering GOP frustration raises the stakes for Rumsfeld, who is scheduled to testify Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A Rumsfeld resignation would have an enormous political downside, a senior House Republican aide said. It would be viewed as an admission of failure in the middle of a war and an embarrassing concession to Democratic critics during Bush’s reelection campaign, the aide said.

A senior aide to the Senate Republican leadership said he did not think that animosity toward the Pentagon had reached the point that Republicans would call for Rumsfeld’s resignation, but that there was a clear sense that “some heads should roll at the Pentagon.”

Senate Republicans were angry not only that the Pentagon withheld information about the prison problem for months, but that Rumsfeld did not mention it when he appeared at a closed-door briefing of the Senate on the day that CBS first aired the photographs documenting the abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

Some saw the Pentagon’s handling of the matter as in keeping with what lawmakers viewed as a general disdain for sharing information with Congress and consulting with it on military matters.

“Hubris is a dangerous disease,” said one senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The president reprimanded Rumsfeld at a White House meeting that had been previously scheduled to discuss a request for $25 billion in new funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the senior administration official said.

“Secretary Rumsfeld was not summoned exclusively on this [prisoner abuse] issue. But it was the top issue when they met,” the official said.

The White House and Pentagon differed not on factual accounts but over questions of whether the severity of the abuses had been made clear and whether the potential for worldwide uproar over the publication of the photographs had been anticipated and addressed.

The abuses took place in Iraq between October and December, and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, appointed Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba to undertake an investigation of problems Jan. 31.

Taguba said he and his investigators looked at photographs but did not include them in addenda to his report. At the time, a criminal investigation by the Army Criminal Investigation Command already had been initiated, Taguba said.

Rumsfeld said Wednesday that Pentagon officials first learned of the abuses Jan. 13. A senior defense official said Rumsfeld was told of them a day or so later.

About that time, in January, officials said, Rumsfeld mentioned the prisoner abuse investigation to Bush at a regularly scheduled White House meeting.

At that session, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday, Bush was satisfied after the defense secretary gave him “a general sense” of the allegations and assured him that “there was an investigation underway.”

McClellan said that neither Bush nor White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. could remember the date on which Rumsfeld told the president of the allegations and the ensuing investigation. Di Rita also was unable to specify the date.

On Jan. 16, the U.S. Central Command in Baghdad announced in a five-sentence news release that an inquiry had begun into “reported” incidents of detainee abuse. Rumsfeld this week said the U.S. had “issued a press release to the world.”

The Jan. 16 release did not name the prison or give any details of the incidents, saying only that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority was “committed to treating all persons under its control with dignity, respect and humanity.”

Bush evidently was unaware of the details of the unfolding investigation and apparently did not know that Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked CBS last month to delay broadcast of its “60 Minutes II” segment on the abuses.

“The precise nature of what occurred only came to light more recently,” McClellan said, referring to Bush’s statement Wednesday during interviews with two Arabic-language TV channels that he had learned of the details from media reports.

Rumsfeld said this week that he, too, had not seen the disturbing photographs before they were broadcast last week. When he had asked about the photographs, Rumsfeld said, he was told by Pentagon officials, “We didn’t have copies.”

Several experts and presidential scholars said they were surprised that the White House and senior Bush advisors, mostly notably Rumsfeld, did not seek to preempt the impact of the CBS broadcast by getting the information out on their own terms.

“It’s extremely surprising that, once the word was passed to Rumsfeld, he didn’t tell the president and his team so they could prepare to defend themselves,” said former White House advisor David Gergen, who has served presidents of both parties.

“An aggressive White House would have preempted CBS and gotten the stuff out and say, ‘By God, we’re going to clean it up,’ ” said Gergen, who teaches at Harvard University. “Instead, it looks as if they’ve been sitting on the pictures and the whole story. They’ve made it much worse by sitting on this.”

A senior Pentagon official acknowledged that some things could have been “done better.” The official said that before the photographs were broadcast, Pentagon officials could have made public statements about the case.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Key dates in the Iraq prison abuse scandal:

* June 30, 2003: Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski named commander of all military prisons in Iraq.

* Aug. 31-Sept. 9: A team of counter-terrorism experts investigating prisoner interrogations in Iraq concludes that although the prisons should provide a “safe, secure and humane environment that supports the expeditious collection of intelligence, ... it is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”

* October: The 372nd Military Police Company ordered to guard Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

* Oct. 13-Nov. 6: A team of military police and legal and medical experts reviews the prison system in Iraq; it concludes that there are possible manpower, training and human rights problems that should be addressed immediately.

* Jan. 13, 2004: Member of the 800th Military Police Brigade tells superiors about prison abuses, and Pentagon officials are informed. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is told a day or so later. Shortly afterward, Rumsfeld tells Bush.

* Jan. 14: U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, opens criminal investigation of abuses.

* Jan. 16: U.S. Central Command announces that an investigation of prison abuses is underway.

* Jan. 17: Sanchez formally advises Karpinski that there are serious deficiencies in her command and that the performance reflects a lack of leadership. Karpinski is later suspended from duty.

* Jan. 19: Sanchez asks for a high-level review of prison procedures.

* Jan. 24: Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, U.S. ground forces commander in Iraq, is directed to conduct the review.

* Jan. 31: Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba is named chief investigator on the review.

* Feb. 2: Taguba and his team visit Abu Ghraib.

* March 3: Taguba’s preliminary findings are presented to McKiernan; they point to members of the 372nd Military Police Company and intelligence operatives as the abusers.

* March 13: The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division charges six soldiers with counts ranging from conspiracy to indecent acts.

* April 6: McKiernan approves some report recommendations, including letters of reprimand for six MPs and noncommissioned officers; two are relieved of duties.

* April 28: “60 Minutes II” shows photographs of prisoners forced to engage in simulated sex acts.

* May 3: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) asks Pentagon officials to testify before his committee the next day.

* May 4: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says those responsible will be brought to justice and widens investigations of prisons outside Iraq and Afghanistan. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice tells the Arab world that the abuses will be investigated and the perpetrators punished. Army officials give Senate committee a private briefing.

* May 5: President Bush appears on two Arab television channels, saying those responsible for the abuses will be brought to justice. Rumsfeld agrees to testify before the Senate committee in open session Friday.

Sources: Associated Press, Department of Defense, Agence France-Presse


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