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'Torture' Fracas Draws Apology

Sen. Durbin ignited a firestorm by saying U.S. methods were like those of repressive regimes.

June 22, 2005|Cynthia H. Cho | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, apologized Tuesday for comparing the treatment of detainees in the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the methods used in Nazi, Soviet and Cambodian concentration camps.

"I offer my apology for those offended by my words," the assistant minority leader said on the Senate floor.

His comments last week had drawn heavy criticism from Republicans, and few Democrats had come to his defense. Under those mounting pressures, he said Tuesday that his reference to Nazis and other repressive regimes was "a very poor choice of words."

"I'm also sorry if anything I said in any way cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military," he added, his voice tight and quavering.

Durbin's apology came the same day that the White House dismissed calls by Democratic House members for an independent commission to look into allegations of abuse of detainees at Guantanamo and other U.S.-controlled facilities. Reps. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles were among the Democrats urging a commission similar to the one that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I think the Department of Defense has taken these issues head-on and addressed them," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. "They continue to look into allegations of abuse. People are being held to account, and we think that's the way to go about this."

In his initial remarks June 14, Durbin read from an FBI agent's e-mail about "torture techniques" that he had seen at Guantanamo. Durbin noted that had he read from the e-mail without revealing that it concerned a U.S. facility, "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."

After indicating that he would not apologize for his remarks, Durbin tried Friday to clarify them, issuing a written statement noting that "historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood" and regretting that what he had said was misunderstood.

That was not sufficient for Republicans, who railed against him.

"Shameful does not begin to describe this heinous slander against our country and the brave men and women risking their lives every day to defend it," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Monday, calling on Durbin to withdraw his comments.

On Tuesday, Frist issued a statement saying Durbin's apology was "a necessary and appropriate step in repairing the harm his earlier remarks have had on the image of the millions of fine men and women serving in America's military."

After Durbin completed his remarks, Democrats and Republicans expressed support.

"I have said things in the past that I wish I hadn't said," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. Calling Durbin "a great whip" and a "close friend," Reid said the Illinois senator had "worked for the Guard and Reserve especially more than anyone" in the Senate.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who Sunday had urged Durbin to apologize and predicted that he would do so within a week, said Durbin had done "the right thing, the courageous thing."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said that it "takes a big person to apologize to the Senate" and that the Senate should move on. "Let this be the end of this," he said.

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