WASHINGTON — A Senate Democratic leader is facing mounting criticism for recent comments he made comparing U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to inhumane tactics used in Nazi, Soviet and Cambodian concentration camps.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant minority leader, subsequently said he regretted that his comments were misunderstood as criticism of U.S. troops. But Republicans have continued to call for a more forthright apology.
"He should certainly apologize," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There's no comparison whatsoever."
The day before, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called on the Senate's second-ranking Democrat to apologize and withdraw his comments.
Democrats, asked about the controversy, said they accepted Durbin's statement of regret as sufficient. Some also argued that the controversy should not obscure the issue that he was raising about the need to investigate alleged abuses at the prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"I think we're paying too much attention to that particular set of circumstances and not the underlying question, and that is whether or not we ought to maintain Guantanamo as a prison camp in Cuba," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said on ABC's "This Week."
At issue is a speech that Durbin made last week in the Senate criticizing the administration for alleged mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. He read from an e-mail from an FBI agent complaining about "torture techniques" that he had witnessed at the prison, such as detainees chained in the fetal position without food or water for 24 hours or more.
Durbin said that had he read from the report without disclosing that it was about an American-run prison, "you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings."
Under fire for those remarks from the White House and conservative critics, Durbin initially seemed unrepentant. By Friday, however, he relented.
"I have learned from my statement that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood," he said in a written statement. "I sincerely regret if what I said caused anyone to misunderstand my true feelings: Our soldiers around the world and their families at home deserve our respect, admiration and total support."
But that language, Republicans said, was not enough. On Saturday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called on the Senate to censure Durbin because his statement of regret did not retract the comparison.
And in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," Gingrich argued that Durbin's words had damaged the U.S. abroad. On the English-language website of the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, an article about Durbin's remarks was listed Sunday as one of the site's most-frequently e-mailed items.
"You cannot ... have a public official quoted throughout the world by our enemies describing the U.S. in these terms," Gingrich said. "It puts every young American in uniform at risk."
Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Durbin, said Sunday that the senator had no further comment. "Sen. Durbin clarified his position in his statement Friday," Shoemaker said. "He still stands by that statement."