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Bush Scolds Rumsfeld on Abuse Inquiry

The Iraq scandal caught the president off guard, an official says. The Pentagon maintains it made the prison charges known to the White House.

May 06, 2004|Edwin Chen, John Hendren and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A clash erupted Wednesday between the White House and the Pentagon over the handling of the Iraq prison abuse investigation, with President Bush telling Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that he felt personally blindsided by the scandal and should have been more fully informed about its severity.

Bush rebuked Rumsfeld during an Oval Office meeting, a senior administration official said Wednesday evening. Bush told Rumsfeld that the White House should have been informed about the photographs documenting some of the abuses, which began appearing in the news media late last week, the senior official said.

"The president wasn't satisfied when he saw those pictures on TV," the official said, referring to photographs of Iraqi prisoners stripped naked and being abused. "And he made that clear to Secretary Rumsfeld. They should have been brought to his attention, and he shouldn't have had to learn of them through the media."

The official said Rumsfeld agreed with Bush that the manner in which the information reached the president was "not satisfactory."

However, Pentagon officials contended that Rumsfeld and defense officials moved swiftly to make the seriousness of the charges known within the administration and at news briefings. They said a senior Pentagon official confirmed to a reporter in January the possibility of graphic photographs.

"This was attacked very aggressively," said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita. "The White House notification was a symptom that everyone knew this was important. I think there was a good understanding that this was a big deal."

The divergent views of how the Pentagon handled the crisis were unusual in an administration known for discouraging the appearance of dissent and came as Congress moved forward on investigations of the abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Some lawmakers have suggested that Rumsfeld's future may be in doubt.

"If it goes all the way to Rumsfeld, then he should resign," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "Who is in charge?"

Even some congressional Republicans were angry with the Pentagon for failing to prepare them for the abuse revelations. Gathering GOP frustration raises the stakes for Rumsfeld, who is scheduled to testify Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

A Rumsfeld resignation would have an enormous political downside, a senior House Republican aide said. It would be viewed as an admission of failure in the middle of a war and an embarrassing concession to Democratic critics during Bush's reelection campaign, the aide said.

A senior aide to the Senate Republican leadership said he did not think that animosity toward the Pentagon had reached the point that Republicans would call for Rumsfeld's resignation, but that there was a clear sense that "some heads should roll at the Pentagon."

Senate Republicans were angry not only that the Pentagon withheld information about the prison problem for months, but that Rumsfeld did not mention it when he appeared at a closed-door briefing of the Senate on the day that CBS first aired the photographs documenting the abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

Some saw the Pentagon's handling of the matter as in keeping with what lawmakers viewed as a general disdain for sharing information with Congress and consulting with it on military matters.

"Hubris is a dangerous disease," said one senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The president reprimanded Rumsfeld at a White House meeting that had been previously scheduled to discuss a request for $25 billion in new funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the senior administration official said.

"Secretary Rumsfeld was not summoned exclusively on this [prisoner abuse] issue. But it was the top issue when they met," the official said.

The White House and Pentagon differed not on factual accounts but over questions of whether the severity of the abuses had been made clear and whether the potential for worldwide uproar over the publication of the photographs had been anticipated and addressed.

The abuses took place in Iraq between October and December, and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, appointed Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba to undertake an investigation of problems Jan. 31.

Taguba said he and his investigators looked at photographs but did not include them in addenda to his report. At the time, a criminal investigation by the Army Criminal Investigation Command already had been initiated, Taguba said.

Rumsfeld said Wednesday that Pentagon officials first learned of the abuses Jan. 13. A senior defense official said Rumsfeld was told of them a day or so later.

About that time, in January, officials said, Rumsfeld mentioned the prisoner abuse investigation to Bush at a regularly scheduled White House meeting.

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