Rumsfeld Denies Abuses Occurred at Interrogations

By ERIC SCHMITT

The New York Times

August 28, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 - In his first comments on the two major investigative reports issued this week at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday mischaracterized one of their central findings about the American military's treatment of Iraqi prisoners by saying there was no evidence that prisoners had been abused during interrogations.

The reports, one by a panel Mr. Rumsfeld had appointed and one by three Army generals, made clear that some abuses occurred during interrogations, that others were intended to soften up prisoners who were to be questioned, and that many intelligence personnel involved in the interrogations were implicated in the abuses. The reports were issued Tuesday and Wednesday.

But on Thursday, in an interview with a radio station in Phoenix, Mr. Rumsfeld, who was traveling outside Washington this week, said, "I have not seen anything thus far that says that the people abused were abused in the process of interrogating them or for interrogation purposes." A transcript of the interview was posted on the Pentagon's Web site on Friday. Mr. Rumsfeld repeated the assertion a few hours later at a news conference in Phoenix, adding that "all of the press, all of the television thus far that tried to link the abuse that took place to interrogation techniques in Iraq has not yet been demonstrated." After an aide slipped him a note during the news conference, however, Mr. Rumsfeld corrected himself, noting that an inquiry by three Army generals had, in fact, found "two or three" cases of abuse during interrogations or the interrogations process. In fact, however, the Army inquiry found that 13 of 44 instances of abuse involved interrogations or the interrogation process, an Army spokeswoma n said. The report itself explicitly describes the extent to which each abuse involved interrogations.

On Friday, the chief Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, sought to play down Mr. Rumsfeld's comments, saying: "He misspoke, pure and simple. But he corrected himself."

While the abuses that first came to light - depicted in photographs taken in Abu Ghraib prison - were not the ones involving interrogations, the subsequent investigations have shown that, among other abuses, prisoners were kept in harsh isolation, beaten, kept naked and threatened by dogs as part of the interrogation process there. Mr. Rumsfeld has condemned the prisoner abuses, and did so again in his public appearances on Thursday in Arizona. But he has also hewed to the line that a small band of rogue military police were largely responsible for the beatings, sexual humiliating poses and other abuses, especially those depicted in a notorious set of photographs that became public in April.

So his remarks on Thursday suggested to some lawmakers on Friday that Mr. Rumsfeld was either out of touch with what had captured headlines and evening news programs this week, or was reluctant to acknowledge the panels' new findings.

"This is a very serious topic and before we comment on the findings, we need to read them thoroughly," said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, who acknowledged that he has been on vacation, too, and has not yet read the full report.

Mr. Rumsfeld also misstated an important finding of an independent panel he appointed and is led by James R. Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, saying in the interview with KTAR radio, "The interesting thing about the Schlesinger panel is their conclusion that, in fact, the abuses seem not to have anything to do with interrogation at all."

But the first paragraph of the Schlesinger panel report says, "We do know that some of the egregious abuses at Abu Ghraib which were not photographed did occur during interrogation sessions and that abuses during interrogation sessions occurred elsewhere."

Mr. Rumsfeld has been on and off vacation this week, meeting with President Bush and visiting troops in Texas earlier in the week, while also spending time at his home in Taos, N.M. On Thursday, Mr. Rumsfeld visited a Marine Corps air base in Yuma, Ariz., before speaking to a business group in Phoenix.

While away from Washington, Mr. Rumsfeld has access to all the classified communications channels and documents he needs to perform his duties. Mr. Rumsfeld was briefed on the findings of the independent panel, but not the Army report. Mr. Di Rita said he did not know if the secretary had yet received copies of the two lengthy reports and read them. "That The New York Times would find the secretary's misstatement and the subsequent effort to set the record straight is of interest is a shameless example of news that is sought during the dog days of August in Washington," another Pentagon spokesman, Eric Ruff, said.

Both the four-member independent panel and the Army inquiry, whose principal investigator was Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, found that military intelligence personnel committed many of the offenses, including some in interrogations.

The Fay report found, for example, that in 16 of the 44 abuse cases the inquiry cited, military intelligence personnel encouraged, condoned or solicited military police officers to commit abuses, from using dogs to terrorize prisoners to placing detainees in dark, poorly ventilated cells that were freezing cold or sweltering hot. In 11 other cases they committed abuses themselves.

In Phoenix, Mr. Rumsfeld accepted some responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, saying, "I testified before the Congress many, many weeks ago and said, you know, the senior person has a responsibility," Mr. Rumsfeld said in the radio interview. The Schlesinger panel said flaws in oversight extended up the chain of command to Mr. Rumsfeld's office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a finding that prompted Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee, and some other Democrats to renew their calls for Mr. Rumsfeld to resign. Mr. Rumsfeld's Republican supporters have rejected those calls, but many of them have referred to the naval analogy that the captain of the ship is ultimately accountable for all that happens aboard the vessel.

Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who leads the Armed Services Committee, told reporters this week that he was leaving it to Mr. Rumsfeld to decide what to do. "He understands the concept of command, the commanding officer ultimately has to take responsibility for those actions in his subordinates that have proven to be unprofessional or downright wrong."

Mr. Schlesinger, speaking in an interview to be broadcast this weekend, concurred. "The secretary of defense takes responsibility for whatever happens below, even though he may have forbidden such action," Mr. Schlesinger told "One on One," a weekly news interview program broadcast on both public and commercial stations across the country.

While acknowledging his accountability, Mr. Rumsfeld said Thursday that he could not watch over the millions of people who work in or for the Defense Department. "Needless to say, if you are in Washington, D.C., you can't know what's going on the midnight shift in one of those many prisons around the world." He added, "What happened shouldn't have happened."

Mr. Rumsfeld insisted that while the abuses "were a terrible thing to have happened," the military has responded quickly and thoroughly to the allegations. So far, four major reports into aspects of the misconduct have been released. Four more are pending. "We keep learning more all the time," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "It's a bit of a discovery process."