Lawmakers made it clear Friday that they were nearly as concerned about being kept in the dark as they were about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at a U.S. detention center near Baghdad, calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the carpet for what they claimed was his attempt to keep the mistreatment a secret.
Fighting for his job at a of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld pointedly reminded senators that an investigation was announced to the public almost immediately in January. He blamed the unauthorized disclosure of graphic photographs of the abuse for an explosion of outrage that has spread around the world.
Largely subdued and apologetic during most of the hearing, where Senate Republican aides said he had to show contrition for the behavior of military police and private contractors at the Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld answered pugnaciously when senators challenged him on the Defense Department’s handling of the public disclosure of the case.
The executive summary of the Army’s investigation “found numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses” that constituted serious violations of international law.
‘Everyone knew it’
Rumsfeld came under intense questioning from Democratic senators led by Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who demanded to know why Rumsfeld and other senior defense leaders waited to condemn the behavior at Abu Ghraib for more than 3½ months, doing so only after the photographs were broadcast on the CBS News program “60 Minutes II.”
CBS said it withheld broadcasting the images for more than week at the request of Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a development that led the senators to further accuse the Defense Department of trying to censor the news.
Complaining that “I do not recall hearing a peep out of either of you, Secretary Rumsfeld or General Myers, about this before CBS broke the silence,” Byrd asked:
“Why did it take the televised broadcast of graphic photos of prisoner abuse, a broadcast General Myers has acknowledged he tried to suppress, to galvanize the leadership of the Defense Department to express its outrage over the situation? Why was a report that described ‘sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses’ by American soldiers left to languish on a shelf in the Pentagon, unread by the top leadership, until the media revealed it to the world?”
Rumsfeld pointed out that the Defense Department announced Jan. 16 that an investigation had been opened into alleged abuse at an unspecified prison in Iraq and that charges against six soldiers were announced on March 20.
“The idea that this is a story that was broken by the media is simply not a fact,” Rumsfeld said, his voice rising for emphasis. “This was presented by the Central Command to the world so that they would be aware that these had been filed.”
To a similar question from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., an exasperated Rumsfeld responded: “Everyone knew it. CNN was there asking questions.”
Previous reports relatively complete
MSNBC.com published an article Jan. 16 reporting that the Defense Department had issued a statement announcing an inquiry.
The statement gave no indication about the location or scope of the reported abuse, however, saying simply that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, had ordered a probe “into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a coalition forces detention facility.” It said “release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages.”
An article March 21 reported many of the details that fueled the scandal after the photographs were broadcast last week. It revealed that six members of an Army military police unit had been criminally charged for acts committed in November and December that came to the attention of military authorities in January.
It was the broadcast of the photographs that brought the case to prominent attention. Rumsfeld repeatedly said that the Defense Department had been handling the investigation and prosecutions thoroughly and appropriately all along.
“The real issue,” he said later at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, “was a secret report was given to the press.”
Rumsfeld maintained that the failure was in the Defense Department’s public handling of the allegations. He told Sen. Susan Collins, D-Maine, that “I wish I had” personally announced the investigation at the beginning and expressed shock, adding, “We've got to find a better way” to conduct criminal investigations not only fairly but also openly.
“We don’t have those procedures,” he acknowledged. “We’re functioning with peacetime procedures in ... wartime.”