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Iraqi Prisoner Abuse

May 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: In closed meetings today, military officials heard strong reactions from members of Congress to the revelations of abuse of imprisoned Iraqis. It’s been nearly a week since CBS’ 60 Minutes II broadcast photos depicting the abuse. They also were reproduced in this week’s New Yorker magazine. The actions occurred at the Abu Ghraib Prison outside Baghdad late last year. A military investigation led to an internal Army report completed in March by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba.

So far, six soldiers have been charged, and at least six others, including the commanding officer at the prison, have been reprimanded. At the Pentagon this afternoon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the military’s first investigation was launched the day after the abuses were reported, a press release on the allegations was issued in mid-January, and six investigations either are completed or ongoing. Rumsfeld then fielded questions from the Pentagon press corps.

CHARLES ALDINGER, Reuters: Mr. Secretary, this administration has said repeatedly that in removing Saddam Hussein, the United States has gotten rid of a man who has murdered and raped and pillaged and tortured people in his country. And now these photographs and stories show that in fact the U.S. military has done that to prisoners in Iraq. And you say that this has — I believe you said it’s damaged U.S. attempts to establish trust in the country. I guess I’d ask you more broadly, is this a major setback for U.S. efforts in Iraq?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Oh, I’m not one for instant history, Charlie. The fact is, this is an exception. The pattern and practice of the Saddam Hussein regime was to do exactly what you said, to murder and torture. And the killing fields are filled with mass graves. And equating the two, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what took place. Yes?

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC News: General Myers said on Sunday that he had not seen the report. I don’t believe you had seen the report even if — I don’t know if you have now. Isn’t this something you would have liked to have been flagged about?

DONALD RUMSFELD: It’s, I guess the way to put it is that the department has been aware of it since it was first noticed, and up the chain of command we’re told that there were investigations into alleged abuses as long ago as last Jan. 16. It takes time for reports to be finished — correction: to be gathered. This is a very comprehensive report. I mean, the fact of the matter is that this is a serious problem. And it’s something that the department is addressing.

The system works. The system works. There were some allegations of abuse in a detention facility in Iraq. It was reported in the chain of command. Immediately it was announced to the public. Immediately an investigation was initiated. Six separate investigations have been undertaken over a period of months since January.

REPORTER: On Capitol Hill today, there was quite a bit of anger expressed at the fact that they’re just finding out about this now. Shouldn’t you have done a better job keeping Congress informed? At least they feel they should have been kept informed.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, we informed the world on Jan. 16 that these investigations were under way. It seems to me that that is a perfectly proper thing to do. The investigations were announced. The world knew it. It was briefed to the press and the world.

GEN. PETER PACE: If I can just interject, the term “routine” is not a good term to use in this regard because this is anything but routine. It has been handled anything but routine. Immediately the commanders called all of the chain of command, to include to myself, General Myers, and — I’m not in the chain of command, excuse me, but I knew about it almost immediately — General Myers, the secretary. That information flow of suspected events and what individuals are doing about investigating it and what types of investigations were needed, that information was shared completely.

What is being done correctly — and we want to take care of an event that is — as bad as it is, we do not want to turn our justice system on its head in response to it. We want at each level for each commander to do his or her duty, which is to take the documentation that they have, read it thoroughly — and these things can be that thick — take the time, read it thoroughly, make the judgments that they must make, see whether or not there’s some other facet of this that should be looked into at their level, make the decisions they’re able to do, and pass it on up the chain.

REPORTER: A number of times from the podium you’ve said U.S. troops do not torture individuals. Is this one of those rare exceptions here that torture took place?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I think that — 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. Just a minute. I don’t know if the — it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the “torture” word.

There’s no question but that it has been my conviction that all of our rules, all of our procedures, all of our training is against abuse of people that are detained. You know that. I know that. I’ve been over it in detail. And the fact that it happens, notwithstanding the fact that it’s against everything that they’re taught, against everything that we believe, it’s also against anything that any individual on their own ought to believe is right. And so there’s, all I can say is what I’ve said.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, have you yet read the Taguba report?

DONALD RUMSFELD: It’s — which — yeah. You’re — I think you’re talking about the executive summary. I’ve seen the executive summary.

REPORTER: Have you read through it, sir?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I’ve been through it — whether I have read every page, no. There’s a lot of references and documentation to laws and conventions and procedures and requirements. But I have certainly read the conclusions and the other aspects of it.

REPORTER: Just to follow up on Jamie’s question, given the ramifications of not only what is in this report, the findings specifically, but the pictures, the photographs that you knew, as of a couple of weeks ago, were going to be broadcast, why did you not feel incumbent upon you at that time to ask for the findings, to take a look at the pictures beforehand, so you could perhaps be prepared to deal with some of the world reaction?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I think I did inquire about the pictures and was told that we didn’t have copies.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, I did ask how you felt this episode has in fact damaged the U.S. efforts.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I’ve answered that. I answered that earlier. I’m not in a position to make a judgment. Time will tell. Clearly we would wish it would not because it is an exceptional, isolated… we hope an isolated case. And our country is our country, and it is a wonderful country. And the American people are wonderful people, and our armed forces are wonderful people. And when one drops a plumb line through the totality of that, is it perfect? No. Are there things like this that happen? Yes. But over time, the people tend to find their way to fair, reasonable conclusions.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate Intelligence Committee announced today it will hold a closed hearing on the abuse tomorrow afternoon.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the congressional reaction we go to two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who attended this morning’s closed-door briefing by Pentagon officials: Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Welcome to you both.

Based on the briefing you all got this morning, Senator Levin, what’s your conclusion about what went wrong? What explains those photographs we saw of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, I’d say it’s a failure at a number of levels — obviously, the troops themselves who participated, but also, anybody in command or supervision who tolerated it, who heard about it, who should have known about it. There’s a major, massive failure here which allowed some despicable conduct to take place, and it’s at a number of levels. We don’t know exactly yet who is involved.

We know that there’s been six troops, six soldiers who have been the subject of criminal investigations. Apparently three of them have already been referred for a court martial. Three of them are still under investigation. We’ve got a couple of officers, noncommissioned, and a couple of general officers who are under investigation, and who have, I think, already been disciplined to some extent. But this is just really the beginning of what is required here, which is a very thorough, a very intense, a very tough, and a very prompt investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Sessions, how detailed was this morning’s briefing that you all got? For example, did they take questions or talk to you all about allegations that have been in the newspaper that not only active duty military, but in fact perhaps private contractors and military intelligence and perhaps even CIA people were involved? How much detail did you get?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: A lot of questions were asked about that, and a number of answers were received. Some answers were not complete at this time, and they said they would fill in the information later. It does appear to me that a number of people at the lower level were involved. How much the superior officers are responsible for not having the right supervision, not setting the right command leadership tone, we don’t know yet. We’ll look into that as we go.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, were you told, essentially, that the military isn’t sure yet, the investigators aren’t sure yet how high up the responsibility goes?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, we were told some of that. Some things we were told, they were not sure about. But I think it’s pretty clear that at least a couple of contractors may have been involved. Interestingly, I authored a piece of legislation in 2000 that deals with the ability to prosecute employees of the Department of Defense, civilian employees, if they violate laws outside the country. So I think that statute, in fact, would cover the circumstances, and would allow for a prosecution of a contractor in a United States court if they violated any law.

MARGARET WARNER: And did that legislation pass? That is law?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Yes, it did. It passed in 2000.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Levin, another issue that came up, according to Senator Kennedy, when he left the briefing, he said he thought that perhaps this was not an isolated incident. He said he feared that these allegations are “the beginning rather than the end.” What impression did you get from the briefing in terms of whether this kind of abuse occurred in other facilities?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The people who briefed us this morning didn’t have any reference to this kind of abuse, but as to allegations of abuse of prisoners, there have been a number of those allegations over the last couple years. There have been many of them. They have been in various places in the investigative process. But this type of abuse, we were told by our briefers, was not similar to the other types, which we were informed about, at least numerically.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Sessions, today at his press conference, Secretary Rumsfeld — and he was speaking now of the way the Department of Defense has handled it — he said “the system worked.” And by that, he said he meant that once a single soldier complained in January, an investigation was immediately started. Other investigations have been started. How do you judge the way the Department of Defense has handled this?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I think fundamentally that’s correct. A single soldier complained in early January. A general was put into looking into the allegations, and prepared a thorough report. Then unfortunately it broke before it had been properly announced to the public and explained to the Congress. That has caused some difficulties, no doubt. It would have been better had the defense department moved more promptly and carefully in deciding how to make this public. Ultimately, it was heading for that. So they did investigate it, and much of what we hear is a result of the investigation, the Department of Defense has conducted. People are being charged as a result of it already. And so, to that extent, I think it’s fair to say this military does not tolerate this, and takes action to deal with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Levin, your view on that, about whether the system worked?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The system did not work in terms of the notice to the Congress of a very, very serious incident that’s going to have an effect on America, our security, and on our troops for a long time to come. This report was finished sometime in February, we’re now told. It was acted upon in early April, we’re now told. We knew nothing about it until we saw it on a TV show. At the same day that Secretary Rumsfeld came up here to brief us on events in Iraq, he didn’t even tell us that same day as to what was going to explode that evening, although he apparently knew all about it. So in terms of informing the public, this is just too secretive an administration on this issue, and on too many other issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me just remind you of what Secretary Rumsfeld said about that today, and General Pace said the same thing: That these investigations go up a chain of command, and that each successive level is supposed to read the whole report, deal with it at their level, and that there’s a sort of methodical process. Are you saying that should have been leapfrogged at some point and come directly to your committee, and if so, what would you have done about it?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: What I’m saying is that the action was taken on April 3, I believe, apparently, we’re told today, on the recommendations in this report, so that the actions had already been taken. And surely, we should have been informed about actions which were taken in an event which is this major an event, that could be this calamitous, that could have this kind of an impact on our relations in the world, how we’re perceived in the world. We all hope that this is just a few soldiers.

We know there’s contractors now that were apparently either involved or who knew about it, and it’s stunning to me that we have contractors doing interrogation. That’s something we surely should have been informed about a long time before now. So I’m not at all satisfied. I hope the investigation has been thorough as far as the Army can go, but I don’t think we can take that for granted. We have to have checks and balances, we’ve got to have oversight, and that’s what hopefully the Armed Services Committee is going to do.

MARGARET WARNER: And general — Senator Sessions — excuse me, I almost made you a general — you share that view that at least once these charges had been filed and these actions had been taken, your committee should have been told?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I think so. I think the results of the confusion make clear that it would have been better had that occurred. I did want to say, though, really, the Defense Department moved on this. They charged people, and they followed up with a thorough investigation by a high-ranking officer. That’s what we expect of them. They did not, I think, handle the public relations well, and it’s made it more difficult for us than otherwise would have been the case.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Levin just referred to the fact — and you both have now — that contractors were involved, and he was kind of stunned that they were even involved in interrogations. One of the conclusions of the report by General Taguba, and it was discussed today at the Rumsfeld press conference, was that part of this was the result of just having inadequate military forces on the ground to do the job. You all have oversight of the military. What is your view of that, and what were you told this morning about that, about whether that was a significant factor?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, let me say this: I think every soldier is taught the Geneva Conventions. They’re taught how to treat a prisoner of war, even if they’re not in the MPs, the military police. Apparently these soldiers were military police. Some of them had been correctional officers before. No matter how many were there, how did they have time to do this kind of thing? This is unacceptable by any American standards of law or the military law. So I think how many troops we had there or whether they were thoroughly trained in prisons is really beside the point. The question is, did they have enough supervision? Were they managed effectively? Certainly they made individual decisions that were just calamitous.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Levin, your view on that issue, and what you heard this morning about whether there were adequate, trained military people to do this job?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, I think that — I don’t know about the training. We’ll find that out during the investigation. It shouldn’t take special training, frankly, for people not to behave this way. That should not be needed. This is just so basic. This kind of conduct, it seems to me, is so brutal, it’s so bestial that it shouldn’t take special training for anybody not to participate in that kind of conduct.

But in terms of using contractors for interrogation, it seems to me that is a fundamental mistake. This is a governmental function. It should be carried out by the Army, people that are responsible to us. General –Senator Sessions — I made him a general now, too — Senator Sessions indeed did get a law passed which I hope will be sustained in court, which goes to the issue of whether someone who is working for us can be held criminally accountable if they violate the law as a contractor, even though it’s overseas. That was, I think, something which took a lot of foresight on Senator Sessions’ part. But that does not answer the question of whether they should be engaged in this conduct to begin with. Whether or not we should be having private contractors doing interrogation for the government, I think is just fundamentally wrong. It shouldn’t be privatized that way.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I have a little different tact on that. We have a lot of former military people with military intelligence experience — former FBI agents, police officers — who can be contracted to handle these kind of interrogations, and are used to doing it in these circumstances. So I don’t complain that they’ve used contractors. I think it could be very helpful, really. But it does indicate that we need good supervision and good management. No one can be left unsupervised in these kind of circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Sessions and Senator Levin, thank you both.