Bush Issues an Apology on Prisoners
A day after stopping short of an apology, President Bush said Thursday that he was sorry for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, and he defended Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld against calls for his resignation.
The administration’s efforts to repair damage from the prison scandal faced another challenge Thursday when the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed that it had uncovered abuses of Iraqi inmates in U.S. custody as early as last summer and had alerted American authorities in detailed reports.
Critics have accused administration officials -- particularly Rumsfeld -- of acting too slowly to address the abuses they said they first learned about in January. At hearings before two congressional committees today, Rumsfeld will probably be confronted with the Red Cross’ statements that U.S. officials knew about the abuses much earlier.
Bush’s apology Thursday came a week after photographs of naked and abused Iraqi prisoners produced waves of anger around the world and drew condemnation of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq. It was a stronger expression of regret than his remarks a day earlier when he told Arabic-language television channels that the “matter ... reflects badly on my country.”
Bush’s condemnation of the abuse Wednesday was accompanied by news reports that he had scolded Rumsfeld for not telling him about the photos earlier.
Bush, standing beside Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the White House Rose Garden, said Thursday that he had been “sickened” by the photos of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqis, who were stripped and bound in positions forcing them to have close physical contact.
“I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families,” Bush said, leaning into his lectern as Abdullah scowled. “I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America. I assured him Americans, like me, didn’t appreciate what we saw, that it made us sick to our stomachs.”
The president insisted that he was sticking with Rumsfeld as his Defense secretary.
“Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense,” Bush said. “Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars.... He’s an important part of my Cabinet, and he’ll stay in my Cabinet.”
All the same, Bush noted pointedly that “I should have known about the pictures and the [investigation] report.”
The furor over the abuses continued to grow inside the United States and around the world, with some congressional Democrats calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation and Republicans offering sharp criticism.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) accused the Defense secretary of misleading Congress by failing to inform it of the prisoner abuses during a briefing with lawmakers the same day that CBS’ “60 Minutes II” first broadcast the photographs.
“Mr. Rumsfeld has been engaged in a cover-up from the start on this issue and continues to be so,” Pelosi told a news conference. “Today, U.S. soldiers are suffering great casualties and injuries, and American taxpayers are paying an enormous price because Donald Rumsfeld has done a poor job as secretary of Defense. Secretary Rumsfeld must resign.”
White House officials described the president’s apology as an “important first step” but acknowledged that it would be critical to U.S. credibility to follow through on promises to investigate and bring those responsible to justice.
“At the end of the day, actions speak the loudest,” one White House official said.
Rumsfeld goes before Congress with two missions: to explain American abuse of Iraqi prisoners and to save his job.
The Defense Department says it reacted quickly to alleged human rights violations at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, launching six investigations. Its apparent efforts to minimize the scandal have made Rumsfeld the first member of Bush’s Cabinet to face a chorus of calls for his ouster.
In more than three years in office, the president has fired only one Cabinet officer, Paul O’Neill, who as Treasury secretary had become an internal critic of Bush’s economic policies. If Bush were to fire Rumsfeld, it might be seen -- and would almost surely be seized on by Democrats -- as an admission that the administration has mismanaged the occupation of Iraq. That would be a heavy price for a president who does not acknowledge errors gladly or easily.
Critics say Rumsfeld may be reaping a whirlwind of ill will that he has sowed through a long career in Washington.
He insisted on managing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, brushing aside warnings from some congressional critics and others that he might be underestimating the challenge. He and aides heaped scorn on Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then-Army chief of staff, for suggesting before the war that many more troops would be needed to occupy the country than the Pentagon had recommended. And, as the situation in Iraq deteriorated, Rumsfeld has continued to insist his decisions were correct.
Even before Iraq, the secretary was widely regarded as arrogant and condescending.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Army officer, said Rumsfeld is unresponsive to “simple requests for information.”
Campaigning in Colton, Calif., Sen. John F. Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, added his voice to those calling for Rumsfeld to step down.
“I called for Rumsfeld’s resignation months ago over Iraq,” Kerry said. “This is the frosting. I think Iraq and the miscalculation, and the overextension of the armed forces, and the entire way in which they rushed the nation to war under these assumptions that he was making, which were incorrect, is a huge, historic miscalculation. And I thought he should have resigned then, period.”
Aides said Rumsfeld spent Thursday preparing behind closed doors for two appearances before the Senate and House armed services committees. They described him as eager to make the case that he understood “from the beginning” the gravity of the abuse cases.
Rumsfeld canceled a Thursday address to the World Affairs Council of Greater Philadelphia, sending his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz.
The House approved a resolution Thursday condemning the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. A resolution was introduced in the Senate on Thursday calling for the destruction of the Abu Ghraib prison.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a speech on the Senate floor that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz “bear ultimate responsibility” for “a colossal failure of leadership.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said: “If he does not resign forthwith, the president should fire him.”
Leading Republicans were standing by the Defense secretary, or at least waiting to hear from him first.
“We want to know how it happened, why it happened and what is being done to fix it,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had spoken extensively with Rumsfeld on Wednesday and had not lost confidence in the secretary “at this point in time.”
However, a senior Republican source close to both congressional leaders and the White House said Rumsfeld has reason to worry. “This is not the end, but it’s the beginning of the end for Rumsfeld,” the source said.
“This is unconscionable for Rumsfeld not to have read the report and briefed the president,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “This goes to the heart of accountability in this administration. Tomorrow, a bunch of Republican senators will go crazy on Rumsfeld. There is no reservoir of goodwill. He’s looked down his nose and been arrogant toward them.”
Meanwhile, in Europe and the Middle East, the International Committee of the Red Cross broke its customary silence Thursday to reveal that it had repeatedly asked U.S. authorities to investigate and halt the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, long before the recent publication of photos.
The Red Cross was the only outside organization allowed access to the prisoners and is entrusted with monitoring conditions. It rarely comments on its work.
“We were aware of what was going on,” spokeswoman Nada Doumani told reporters in Amman, Jordan.
Red Cross officials would not discuss details of their findings. But they decided to go public after the release of photos and U.S. military reports documenting abuses.
“Now we are forced to make it very clear that we knew about it, we were in those places, and we had brought it to the attention of the U.S. authorities,” said Roland Huguenin, a London-based spokesman for the Red Cross.
In a telephone conversation Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell assured Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger that the abuse would be dealt with comprehensively, and would not recur, officials said.
In Baghdad, Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq’s new human rights minister, called for the U.S. military to open all detention centers to inspection by human rights groups and other independent organizations.
Administration officials continued their efforts at damage control, with Bush giving an interview to an Egyptian newspaper. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher went on the U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra television channel, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage was scheduled to do a round of interviews with Arab publications today.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Baghdad; Richard Simon, John Hendren, James Gerstenzang and Paul Richter in Washington; Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Maria L. La Ganga in Colton, Calif., contributed to this report.