WASHINGTON—As investigations into U.S. military abuse of Iraqi captives gathered steam, Pentagon officials revealed Tuesday that they have investigated the deaths of 25 prisoners overseas and labeled two of them homicides.
The widening scandal threatened to seriously hurt America's image abroad, especially in the Muslim and Arab world. In an effort to curb the damage, the White House announced late Tuesday evening that President Bush will address the abuse allegations on Wednesday in 10-minute interviews to two Arab television networks.
On Capitol Hill, angry lawmakers—some reliable Republican allies of the Bush administration—demanded that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appear at a public hearing to explain how American jailers could have been allowed to sadistically abuse Iraqi prisoners.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called the abuse disgusting and degrading and questioned why Congress had been kept in the dark.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the incidents the most "serious a problem of breakdown in discipline as I've ever observed."
"Who is responsible for what happened?" asked Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I think it starts with Rumsfeld and works its way down."
Biden said the abuse "warrants somebody's resignation" but declined to say whether it should be Rumsfeld.
Making his first remarks about the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld on Tuesday called the actions "totally unacceptable and un-American." He said an internal Pentagon report that described the prisoners as being beaten, sodomized and drenched in phosphoric liquid and cold water left him "deeply disturbed."
Rumsfeld pledged that those responsible would be brought to justice.
"I have no doubt that we will take these charges and allegations most seriously," he said.
Photos of naked Iraqi prisoners stacked on top of each other and forced to simulate sex acts while their American captors looked on laughing have been broadcast around the world to widespread condemnation.
Since then, other Iraqis have alleged that they too have been beaten.
Six U.S. soldiers are facing criminal charges and another six have been reprimanded. Several investigations are under way at the Pentagon.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said late Tuesday that Bush will give interviews to two Arab TV outlets on Wednesday—al Hurra, a U.S.-sponsored pan-Arab network, and the Dubai-based al Arabiya.
"It is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to people in Arab nations and let them know that these images we all have seen are shameful and unacceptable," McClellan said. "These images do not represent what America stands for. They do not represent the high standard of conduct our military is committed to upholding."
McClellan said Rumsfeld had informed Bush of the abuse allegations, but said he couldn't determine exactly when Bush was told.
Appearing at the United Nations in New York City on Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that even though the abuse had been perpetrated by a small number of troops, he worried about the impact it will have on U.S. foreign policy.
"I'm deeply concerned about the horrible image that this has sent around the world," Powell said.
Powell, a retired Army general, called the abuse of detainees "illegal" and "immoral."
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Powell's tough comments were prompted by a concern that other administration officials, including Rumsfeld, hadn't expressed sufficient remorse.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also went into damage control mode in interviews on several Arab television networks.
"We all feel outraged at these pictures," Rice told al Arabiya. "I want to assure people in the Arab world ... that the president is determined to get to the bottom of it."
The White House said Tuesday evening that President Bush also is planning to do interviews with Arab TV outlets.
But a European diplomat for the United Nations said: "The damage is overwhelming."
"Clearly it makes things more difficult for the Americans" in the Arab world and beyond, said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
New revelations on Tuesday about prisoner deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed certain to add fuel to the fire.
An Army soldier was accused of using excessive force in the shooting death of an Iraqi prisoner. He was convicted in the U.S. military justice system but served no jail time. His rank was reduced to private and he was thrown out of the service.
The second homicide was committed by a private contractor working with the CIA, said a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The case has been referred to the Justice Department.
Officials are continuing to investigate 10 deaths and 10 assaults. A third homicide was ruled justifiable by authorities.
Military coroners ruled that two detainee deaths at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in December 2002 were homicides. But the results of military investigations into those deaths haven't been made public. It has also been reported that a former Iraqi general, Abed Hamed Mowhoush, died during American interrogations late last year. It's unknown whether any of those cases is included in the Pentagon statistics released Tuesday.
Gen. George Casey, vice chairman of the Army, briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee behind closed doors Tuesday morning. Afterward, he told reporters that the actions at Abu Ghraib prison—while horrific—were an aberration.
"What you see on those pictures is not indicative of our training or values," Casey said.
Still, there were calls for more hearings to investigate further, including whether civilian contractors should be dealing with foreign prisoners as some are in Iraq.
"Any incident like this would lead to an overall review of how prisoners are treated," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Some warned that the images could spark fresh violence against U.S. soldiers.
"There is going to be a wave of revulsion that is going to sweep over us, I am afraid," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"It's going to hurt our troops and make this country a lot less secure."
Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the Senate minority leader, questioned why Bush hadn't learned of the incident sooner. He complained that Rumsfeld and key Pentagon leaders had briefed lawmakers on the same day that the prisoner abuse story broke on the CBS newsmagazine show "60 Minutes," but failed to mention the allegations.
"Now, why were we not told in a classified briefing why this happened and that it happened at all?" Daschle said.
Rumsfeld allowed Tuesday that he hadn't read all of an internal Pentagon report, completed about a month ago, detailing the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.
And the defense secretary bridled at the portrayal of the guards' activities as torture. "I'm not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture."
Although the report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba was classified as secret and not distributed to lawmakers, the Pentagon said there was no attempt at a cover-up.
"There has been no attempt to hide this," said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "What we've been trying to do is find out the truth of the matter so we can get on about correcting, finding out who did what and then taking proper action."
Human rights groups say they have been kept at arms length from U.S. military detention facilities. As a result, some say, jailers are largely unaccountable and a lawless culture has been allowed to develop.
"We've visited prisons in places like Libya, which is not exactly known for its openness," said Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett said. "But with the United States, the answer is no" to access.
The top human rights agency of the United Nations also said Tuesday that it has launched an investigation into the state of Iraqi civil rights, which will include a look at the prison abuses.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Warren Strobel at the United Nations, Alan Bjerga in Washington and Matthew Schofield in Berlin contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.