President Bush privately admonished Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, as other senior administration officials blamed the Pentagon for failing to act on repeated recommendations to improve conditions for thousands of Iraqi detainees and release those not charged with crimes, U.S. officials said.
Bush is "not satisfied" and "not happy" with the way Rumsfeld informed him about the investigation into abuses by U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison or the quantity of information Rumsfeld provided, a senior White House official said.
The president was particularly disturbed at having had to learn from news reports this week about the scope of misconduct documented in an Army investigative report completed in March, according to the official, who refused to be named so he could speak more candidly.
Other officials sought to portray Rumsfeld and the Pentagon as resisting appeals in recent months from the State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority to deal with problems relating to detainees. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged action in several White House meetings that included Rumsfeld, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"It's something Powell has raised repeatedly -- to release as many detainees as possible -- and, second, to ensure that those in custody are properly cared for and treated," said a senior State Department official familiar with the discussions.
But the Pentagon repeatedly failed to act on both requests, said U.S. officials, who are privately furious over a human relations disaster that they believe might have been averted if military officials had acted on their requests.
Defense officials sharply disputed suggestions that Rumsfeld or other senior Pentagon authorities turned a deaf ear to the appeals and ignored festering problems at U.S.-run detention centers. They said there were no major differences between the departments of State and Defense over handling of detainees in Iraq, saying top administration officials had generally agreed on the need to reduce the number of prisoners in U.S. military custody and ensure proper management of detention facilities.
"It would be unfair to Secretary Powell to portray the discussions among [national security] principals about this issue in the way some people seem to be trying to portray them," said Lawrence T. DiRita, the Pentagon's chief spokesman. "There was a lot of important activity and interest taken by the principals, including Rumsfeld, to make sure we were doing all that we could."
Rumsfeld also came in for fresh criticism yesterday on Capitol Hill, where Republicans joined Democrats in expressing anger about not having been informed about the details of the prison investigation. Rumsfeld is to appear at Senate Armed Services Committee hearing tomorrow, and some White House officials fear that a Republican lawmaker will ask him whether he is considering resigning. Some Republican aides on Capitol Hill said he might not survive until Election Day. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Rumsfeld should resign if investigators conclude the chain of responsibility reaches his office.
The defense secretary has deplored the reported abuses at Abu Ghraib prison but defended the Pentagon's response, saying military commanders acted promptly to investigate conditions there after being alerted in January to the misconduct. He also has noted that the Pentagon announced the start of the investigation in January and, in March, reported the filing of charges against six enlisted military police soldiers who served as guards.
But the nature of their offenses were not revealed until CBS's "60 Minutes II" aired photographs last week showing naked inmates piled up beside smiling soldiers and the New Yorker magazine days later detailed the findings of the Army's internal report. In the wake of widespread outrage over the misconduct, the Pentagon has moved to tighten oversight of prison operations in Iraq, accelerate release of prisoners and probe conditions at internment centers elsewhere.
State Department officials, however, have been particularly concerned about what they said was the Pentagon's reluctance to heed urgings earlier from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to improve conditions at Iraqi prisons.
"We've been pressing for more flexibility and openness to the ICRC's needs and suggestions about the detainees," said a U.S. official familiar with the legal issues involved in detentions.
U.S. officials here and former Coalition Provisional Authority officials attributed some of the problem to disarray and poor communication among different branches of the occupation structure in Iraq. But they said the Pentagon's resistance also has been a factor.
"The level of disarticulation between the military and civilian components of our occupation is extraordinary," said Larry Diamond, fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute who served for several months as an adviser to L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, and is now a critic of the U.S. occupation. "We're either serious about human rights and the Geneva Convention or we're not."
Although Bush is giving no consideration to asking to Rumsfeld to resign, the senior White House official said, the president informed Rumsfeld of his dissatisfaction during a meeting in the Oval Office yesterday morning after the two left a National Security Council meeting. Bush was particularly bothered at not having been told that the photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison were in circulation, even though Pentagon officials knew that CBS had obtained them, the senior White House official said.
Asked yesterday by Al Hurra, a television station seen widely in the Arab world that is financed by the U.S. government, Bush replied: "Oh, of course I've got confidence in the secretary of defense, and I've got confidence in the commanders on the ground in Iraq."
Bush aides conceded that Rumsfeld had earlier given Bush a general sense of the investigation of Abu Ghraib during a meeting that included Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. But White House press secretary Scott McClellan said officials have not been able to pin down the exact date, except that it was after Jan. 16, when the Pentagon issued a release announcing the probe.
Much of the debate within the administration over what to do about Iraqi prisoners has roots in a long-running struggle among the departments of State, Defense and Justice to sort through prisoners at the detention facility at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said. The scandal involving Abu Ghraib prison has cast a fresh spotlight on the administration's general approach to the handling of war prisoners and terrorist suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Drastic policy shift
Concerns about prison conditions in Iraq were brought up in internal administration deliberations at the beginning of the year by Powell and Bremer, who warned of the potential political fallout, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials now say the only solution to the crisis over treatment of Iraqi detainees is a drastic policy shift, such as surrendering all control of prisoners or sharing supervision with Iraqis or an international institution such as the ICRC.
Since it is not likely that Iraqis or the wider Islamic world will believe U.S. pledges to deal with the situation, the Bush administration needs some kind of witness or partner in administering the detention centers, U.S. officials said.
In the past, however, the ICRC has not been willing to share control of detainees with another party. So the only option may be some form of joint control with Iraqis or other unspecified forces, the officials said.
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.