Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today described as "reprehensible" and "outlandish" a human rights group's comparison of U.S. military detention facilities to a Soviet-style gulag, and he said the military goes to great lengths to accommodate the religious practices of detainees.
In a Pentagon press conference, Rumsfeld also warned unspecified foreign countries against providing any treatment or safe haven to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who heads an al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group in Iraq and who reportedly was wounded in a recent clash with U.S. troops.
On a domestic matter dominating the news, Rumsfeld refused to respond directly to a question on whether he views former high-ranking FBI official W. Mark Felt as a hero or a criminal for his early 1970s role as the Watergate-era source known as "Deep Throat." Felt was publicly identified yesterday as the anonymous source who provided crucial guidance to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and helped unravel the Watergate scandal.
In an opening statement, Rumsfeld said that "no force in the world has done more to liberate people that they have never met than the men and women of the United States military. Indeed, that's why the recent allegation that the U.S. military is running a gulag at Guantanamo Bay is so reprehensible."
The defense secretary referred to a report issued last week by Amnesty International that criticized the detention of hundreds of terrorist suspects without charge or trial at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in U.S.-controlled jails in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a speech accompanying the release of the report, Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, said, "Guantanamo has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law." She called on the United States to close the detention facility and either release or charge its prisoners.
President Bush personally denounced the criticism yesterday, calling it "absurd."
Rumsfeld said today that "gulag" refers to the forced-labor concentration camps in which the former Soviet Union imprisoned millions of people, and that the term could also be applied to the system whereby former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein "mutilated and murdered untold numbers because they held views unacceptable to his regime."
"To compare the United States and Guantanamo Bay to such atrocities cannot be excused," Rumsfeld said. While the U.S. government welcomes "informed criticism" on human rights issues, "those who make such outlandish charges lose any claim to objectivity or seriousness," he said.
William F. Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, retorted today that Rumsfeld and the Bush administration "ignored or dismissed Amnesty International's reports on the abuse of detainees for years, and senior officials continue to ignore the very real plight of men detained without charge or trial." In a statement, Schulz said that 20 years ago, "Amnesty International was criticizing Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses at the same time Donald Rumsfeld was courting him."
The Bush administration's "deliberate policy" is to detain people without charge or trial at Guantanamo, Bagram air base in Afghanistan and other locations, Schulz said. He added, "Donald Rumsfeld personally approved a December 2002 memorandum that permitted such unlawful interrogation techniques as stress positions, prolonged isolation, stripping and the use of dogs at Guantanamo Bay, and he should be held accountable, as should all those responsible for torture, no matter how senior."
Rumsfeld suggested that the reported mistreatment of U.S.-held detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq pales in comparison to "the beheading of innocent civilians by terrorists, the thousands of bodies found in mass graves in Iraq, the allegations of rape of women and girls by U.N. workers in the Congo." He acknowledged that detainees have been mistreated, "sometimes grievously," in U.S. custody, but he said they were only a tiny fraction of the 68,000 people detained by U.S. forces since Sept. 11, 2001. He cited "approximately 370 criminal investigations" into mistreatment charges, and he said the service members found to have abused detainees amounted to fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 525,000 men and women who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.
Those being detained at Guantanamo are "suspected terrorists," many of whom "have been systematically trained to lie and to claim torture," Rumsfeld said. He said at least a dozen of the 200 released from Guantanamo so far have been "caught back on the battlefield involved in efforts to kidnap and kill Americans."
He lamented a "lack of media attention" to U.S. military practices of humane treatment of detainees and respect for their religious beliefs. And he charged that equating "the military's record on detainee treatment to some of the worst atrocities of the past century is a disservice to those who have sacrificed so much to bring freedom to others."
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the same briefing that Zarqawi, the most-wanted insurgent leader in Iraq, "has been wounded," but that the severity of the injury and his whereabouts remain unknown.
Unprompted, Rumsfeld added, "The current assumption is that he's in Iraq. Were a neighboring country to take him in and provide medical assistance or haven for him, they, obviously, would be associating themselves with a major linkage in the al Qaeda network and a person who has a great deal of blood on his hands."
Asked if there would be "consequences" for such action, Rumsfeld said any country that helped Zarqawi "is obviously associating themselves with al Qaeda" and contributing to the deaths of Iraqis and coalition forces. "And that's something that people would want to take note of," he said.
As for "Deep Throat," Rumsfeld was asked his reaction to the disclosure that the source was the number-two man in the FBI, given that Rumsfeld has complained about the use of anonymous sources and was part of the Nixon administration.
"I think that anytime wrongdoing occurs, it's important that that wrongdoing be reported," the defense secretary said. "Now, who one reports that to -- the authorities -- is one thing or somebody else is another. But I'm not knowledgeable enough to be in a position to judge it."
Pressed to say whether he believes Felt was "a hero or a criminal," Rumsfeld said, "Well, I'm not in any judgmental mood."
He added later, "I still don't want to be judgmental, but I also wouldn't want to send the wrong signal to people in the Department of Defense. Anyone who sees wrongdoing who works for the United States government has an obligation to report that wrongdoing to the Department of Justice or to the proper authorities in the department. . . . I wouldn't want to leave any ambiguity about that."