May 6, 2004
WASHINGTON -- President Bush said that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "will stay in my Cabinet" despite Democratic calls for his departure over abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American military guards.
"Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well," Bush told reporters today in an appearance in the White House Rose Garden. Speaking slowly for emphasis, he added, "Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars, and he is an important part of my Cabinet."
With King Abdullah II of Jordan at his side, Bush also offered his first outright apology for the mistreatment suffered by Iraqis at the hands of their American captors. He said he was "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families," and said the images had made Americans "sick to their stomach."
Bush spoke as his administration sought to counter a worldwide wave of revulsion over photographs showing Iraqi prisoners, some of them hooded, naked and in sexually humiliating poses, in an American-run prison in the Baghdad area.
Some of the images show American captors mugging and gloating amid the misery of the Iraqis. One, published Thursday on the front page of The Washington Post, showed a naked man on the concrete cellblock floor, his neck in a leash, the other end of which was in the hand of a female American GI.
For the second straight day, Bush vowed that those responsible would be brought to justice.
On that, the president drew no dissent, but a growing list of Democrats in Congress said Rumsfeld should resign, be fired, or even impeached.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters she believes Rumsfeld must go. And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, issued a statement saying that "For the good of our country, the safety of our troops, and our image around the globe Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. If he does not resign forthwith, the president should fire him."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting, also jabbed at Bush on the issue. In an appearance in California, Kerry said, "as president I will not be the last to know what is going on in my command. I will demand accountability for those who serve, and I will take responsibility for their actions.
"And I will do everything that I can in my power to repair the damage that this has caused to America's standing in the world and to the ideals for which we stand."
In the Rose Garden, Bush told reporters he had chastised Rumsfeld in a private meeting earlier this week for failing to inform him about the abusive treatment of prisoners before it became public knowledge.
The president had stopped short of issuing an apology for the abuse on Wednesday, when he granted interviews to two Arab television networks. This time, in the presence of the king of an Arab country, he said he was sorry.
At the same time, he was unflinching in his support of Rumsfeld, whom he called back to the Pentagon in 2001 for his second tour of duty as secretary.
"He will stay in my Cabinet," the president said.
Bush's unambiguous endorsement came as Rumsfeld was preparing for what promises to be two contentious sessions with congressional committees on Friday.
The Bush administration's efforts at damage control extended to the State Department.
There, Secretary of State Colin Powell talked by phone with Jakob Kellenberger of the Red Cross and assured him the Bush administration was dealing with the abuse issue.
"We will answer in a comprehensive way," Powell told reporters.
Powell talked to Kellenberger after the International Red Cross said that months before word of the abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison became public, it had repeatedly asked U.S. authorities to take action over reported abuses. "We were aware of what was going on, and based on our findings we have repeatedly requested the U.S. authorities to take corrective action," said Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the organization in Geneva. She said Red Cross representatives have visited the prison and talked privately with detainees since last year.
Rumsfeld remained out of public view during the day to prepare for his command appearance before congressional committees.
Democrats and Republicans alike expressed their shock and outrage at the abusive treatment of prisoners, but thus far, outright calls for Rumsfeld's ouster were limited to Democrats.
Pelosi, D-Calif., asked whether she believes the defense secretary should step down, said, "I do."
Harkin, D-Iowa, issued a statement that laid blame for the developments at Rumsfeld's door. "The United States Constitution assures civilian control over the military. The blame cannot and should not remain solely with low-level soldiers. The Secretary must be held accountable," it said.
Rep. Charles Rangel of New York joined the chorus of Democrats calling for Rumsfeld to step down or for Bush to fire him. If neither happens, Rangel said, Congress should impeach the defense secretary "for withholding from the president, Congress and the American people information on the abuses at the Iraqi prison."
That seemed extremely unlikely in a Congress under Republican control.
Democrats, shot back House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, "want to win the White House more than they want to win the war" on terror.
The Republican-controlled House pushed toward passage of legislation that deplored "the abuse of persons in United States custody" and urged that any military personnel involved be brought to justice.
"The charges of abuses will be examined fully and immediate corrective measures taken to prevent against their reoccurance. That's assured," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla.
Democrats argued the GOP-drafted measure didn't go far enough. They called instead for a bipartisan congressional investigation and pointed out the Republican proposal made no mention of intelligence agents or civilian contractor employees who may also have abused detainees.