President Bush privately admonished Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, a senior White House official said, as other U.S. officials blamed the Pentagon for failing to act on repeated recommendations to improve conditions for thousands of Iraqi detainees and release those not charged with crimes.
Bush is "not satisfied" and "not happy" with the way Rumsfeld informed him about the investigation into abuses by U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison or the quantity of information Rumsfeld provided, the senior White House official said.
The president was particularly disturbed at having had to learn from news reports this week about the scope of misconduct documented in an Army investigative report completed in March, according to the official, who refused to be named so he could speak more candidly.
Other U.S. officials said Rumsfeld and the Pentagon resisted appeals in recent months from the State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority to deal with problems relating to detainees. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged action in several White House meetings that included Rumsfeld, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"It's something Powell has raised repeatedly -- to release as many detainees as possible -- and, second, to ensure that those in custody are properly cared for and treated," said a senior State Department official familiar with the discussions.
But the Pentagon repeatedly failed to act on both requests, said U.S. officials, who are privately furious over a human rights disaster that they believe might have been averted if military officials had acted on their requests.
Defense officials sharply disputed suggestions that Rumsfeld or other senior Pentagon authorities turned a deaf ear to the appeals and ignored festering problems at U.S.-run detention centers. They said there were no major differences between the departments of State and Defense over the handling of detainees in Iraq, saying top administration officials had generally agreed on the need to reduce the number of prisoners in U.S. military custody and ensure proper management of detention facilities.
"It would be unfair to Secretary Powell to portray the discussions among [national security] principals about this issue in the way some people seem to be trying to portray them," said Lawrence T. DiRita, the Pentagon's chief spokesman. "There was a lot of important activity and interest taken by the principals, including Rumsfeld, to make sure we were doing all that we could."
Rumsfeld also came in for fresh criticism yesterday on Capitol Hill, where Republicans joined Democrats in expressing anger about not having been informed about the details of the prison investigation. Rumsfeld is to appear at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing tomorrow, and some White House officials fear that a Republican lawmaker will ask him whether he is considering resigning. Some Republican aides on Capitol Hill said he might not survive until Election Day. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Rumsfeld should resign if investigators conclude the chain of responsibility reaches his office.
The defense secretary has deplored the reported abuses at Abu Ghraib prison but defended the Pentagon's response, saying military commanders acted promptly to investigate conditions there after being alerted in January about the misconduct. He also has noted that the Pentagon announced the start of the investigation in January and, in March, reported the filing of charges against six enlisted military police soldiers who served as guards.
But the nature of their offenses were not revealed until CBS's "60 Minutes II" aired photographs last week showing naked inmates piled up beside smiling soldiers and the New Yorker magazine days later detailed the findings of the Army's internal report. In the wake of widespread outrage over the misconduct, the Pentagon has moved to tighten oversight of prison operations in Iraq, accelerate release of prisoners and probe conditions at internment centers elsewhere.
State Department officials, however, have been particularly concerned about what they said was the Pentagon's reluctance to heed urgings earlier from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to improve conditions at Iraqi prisons.
"We've been pressing for more flexibility and openness to the ICRC's needs and suggestions about the detainees," said a U.S. official familiar with the legal issues involved in detentions.
U.S. officials here and former Coalition Provisional Authority officials attributed some of the problems to disarray and poor communication among different branches of the occupation structure in Iraq. But they said the Pentagon's resistance has also been a factor.