Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a surprise visit to boost the morale of U.S. forces in Iraq, dismissed as “garbage” Thursday any suggestion that the Defense Department tried to cover up the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.
But Rumsfeld, who visited the facility at the heart of the uproar, the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, warned that the scandal would get worse before it got better, and he said Bush administration lawyers were not to publicly release any more photographs of the abuse.
Rumsfeld was accompanied on his 7½-hour visit, his first since February, by Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several lawyers on a trip designed to reassure U.S. troops that the scandal had not weakened public support for their mission and to get firsthand reports from the most senior commanders.
Hours after U.S. lawmakers viewed “sadistic” new photographs of U.S. soldiers’ behavior, Rumsfeld arrived by helicopter at Abu Ghraib, where seven U.S. military police reservists are accused of sexually and physically tormenting detainees.
“We told ourselves that the right thing to do was to come out here and look you folks in the eye,” Rumsfeld told U.S. guards in the prison mess hall after meeting Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the new commander in charge of jails in Iraq.
“It’s generally a lot more fun here than it is back home,” Rumsfeld said before taking questions from soldiers.
Myers agreed, saying, “I’m really glad to be here.”
Rumsfeld: No damage control
After a secret 15-hour flight from Washington, Rumsfeld arrived at the old Saddam International Airport, now a sprawling U.S. base, at about noon (4 a.m. ET). In addition to meeting with military commanders and troops, he was scheduled to hold discussions with the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and members of the temporary governing coalition.
The secretary has come under severe criticism from members of Congress for his handling of the scandal, and some Democrats have called for his resignation, but Rumsfeld gave no indication that he was considering quitting.
He denied that his visit was an attempt to limit the public damage from the scandal, telling reporters aboard the flight: “If anybody thinks that I'm [in Iraq] to throw water on a fire, they're wrong.”
“It would be a misunderstanding if anyone thinks that Dick [Myers] or I can go in there for a short period and serve as a solution to the concern among the Iraqi people or solve of all the problems that may exist in the process,” he added. “We can’t.”
Myers said: “There are really valid reasons why you’ve got to get your feet on the ground, hear what’s going on. You get a much different texture than you do when you’re back in Washington. So that’s what it’s about. And we’re going to have some time to talk to troops, pat [them] on the back.”
Rumsfled slams coverage
Rumsfeld, 71, who has weathered three long rounds of questioning from congressional committees over the past several days, appeared weary on the long flight. After taking questions aboard his plane for nearly an hour, he called a sudden halt, saying his voice was giving out.
He fiercely defended the Defense Department’s response to the revelations of U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib having subjected Iraqi prisoners to sexually humiliating treatment and photographing it.
“The garbage that you keep reading about cover-up and the Pentagon doing something to keep some information from people is unfair, inaccurate and wrong,” he told the troops. “And if I find any evidence that it’s true, I’ll stop it.”
“I've stopped reading the newspapers,” Rumsfeld said, adding that he was now reading a history of the Civil War. He noted the sometimes “vicious” criticisms that leaders in that much bloodier conflict faced, including President Abraham Lincoln.
But Rumsfeld also predicted that the scandal would get worse in the days ahead.
“More bad things will come out, unquestionably,” he said without being specific. “And time will settle over this, and we’ll be able to make an assessment of what the effect has been” on the effort to stabilize Iraq. “It clearly has not been helpful. It has been unhelpful,” he added.
He went on to complain bitterly about the Arab media’s coverage of U.S. operations in Iraq.
“We have been lied about, day after day, week after week, month after month for the last 12 months in the Arab press,” he said, specifically mentioning the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya satellite TV networks.
New structure at Abu Ghraib
Miller, the new commander of prisons in Iraq, told Rumsfeld that a new complex of outdoor camps would open soon on the grounds outside the main prison building.
It will be called Camp Redemption, he said, at the suggestion of the Iraqi Governing Council, and will provide better living conditions for the detainees.
Miller said he planned to reduce the prisoner population at Abu Ghraib from the 3,800 who are there now to as few as 1,500 by June 15. In January, there were about 7,000 prisoners there.
Rumsfeld, meanwhile, said U.S. officials had had talks with “a couple of handfuls, maybe three handfuls of nations,” about contributing troops to the international force in Iraq. He did not identify the countries involved.
“The discussions are quite far along with respect to a number of them,” Rumsfeld said. “And I’m encouraged. I think we’ll find that we will get additional forces.”