President Bush delivered a strong public endorsement of his embattled defense secretary today and pledged a "full accounting" for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. military personnel in a notorious Baghdad prison.
After a meeting at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top national security officials, Bush made a point of effusively thanking Rumsfeld for his leadership despite growing calls for his removal over the prisoner abuse scandal.
"You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror," Bush said as Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and senior generals looked on. "You are doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."
Rumsfeld, 71, has come under mounting pressure to step down over the humiliation and mistreatment of about 20 Iraqi detainees by U.S. military police guards at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. So far, seven military police have been charged with offenses in the case and face military justice. U.S. military intelligence personnel and private contractors are also under investigation in the case.
Among those favoring Rumsfeld's resignation is Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said this morning that he thought the defense secretary should resign, but stressed that the problem goes beyond that issue.
"I think this is so much bigger than Secretary Rumsfeld," Biden said on the CBS "Early Show." "There seems to be more concern about political damage control than international damage control. I want to see the president do some swift and positive action here."
Adding to the chorus today was the independent Army Times newspaper and its sister publications for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. In an editorial, the weekly newspapers, owned by the Gannett Co. and widely read in the armed forces, said Rumsfeld and other Pentagon leaders should be removed over the Abu Ghraib scandal.
"This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level," the editorial said. "This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essential -- even if that means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war." It said Rumsfeld, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and theirs staffs "failed to recognize the impact the scandal would have, not only in the United States but around the world. . . . The entire affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish."
In a brief speech at the Pentagon after his meeting with Rumsfeld and other top officials, Bush defended his administration's handling of the prisoner abuse scandal.
"Because America's committed to the equality and dignity of all people, there will be a full accounting for the cruel and disgraceful abuse of Iraqi detainees," Bush said. He called the mistreatment "an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency."
Noting that several investigations into the abuse are underway, Bush said that "those involved will answer for their conduct in an orderly and transparent process" and that "all prison operations in Iraq will be thoroughly reviewed to make certain that such offenses are not repeated."
Bush said, "Those responsible for the abuses have caused harm that goes well beyond the walls of a prison. It has given some an excuse to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives. Yet who can doubt that Iraq is better for being free from one of the most bloodiest tyrants the world has ever known?"
Bush described the abuse as the work of a small group of people and gave no indication of how high the blame might extend.
"I know how painful it is to see a small number dishonor the honorable cause in which so many are sacrificing," he said. "What took place in the Iraqi prison does not reflect the character of the more than 200,000 military personnel who have served in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Bush ended his speech and left the Pentagon without answering any questions from reporters.
Shortly after the president's remarks, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that his panel will hold its second hearing on the alleged prison abuses Tuesday. Major Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who conducted an investigation of the reports for the Army, will open the session.