Hard to Say You're Sorry
After days of resisting apologizing for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, President Bush finally "expressed his regrets in the White House Rose Garden at the side of King Abdullah II of Jordan after they met in the Oval Office," saying, "I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families." According to the Washington Post, aides had advised the president to apologize the day before in televised appearances on Arabic news channels. Senior officials were puzzled when he did not and had to push "for him to say he was sorry during his news conference with Abdullah."
An apology is a step in the right direction, but it will take more than words to restore damaged American credibility. President Bush needs to follow up his apology with strong action. The Center for American Progress announced a strategy for progress in Iraq this week, calling for the prison systems to be opened to international inspection. Also, the report called for a "Permanent Committee for Monitoring Prison Conditions to be established with representatives from the international security force, the Iraqi caretaker government, Iraqi civil society, the International Committee of the Red Crescent and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The new Iraqi Ministry of Interior should establish a citizens' liaison to compile and keep a centralized database of all detainees in Iraqi prisons."
The explosive U.S. Army report wasn't the only alarm bell the administration received about abuse. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivered a confidential report, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, to the White House earlier this year which "concluded that abuse of prisoners in Iraq in custody of U.S. military intelligence was widespread and in some cases 'tantamount to torture.'" It also charged coalition forces with "serious violations" of the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of prisoners of war. Yesterday, the group publicly said it had been aware of the situation in Abu Ghraib and "repeatedly asked the U.S. authorities to take corrective action." It is unclear who had read the report; Pentagon officials "declined to comment, saying that they had a confidentiality agreement with the ICRC that prevented them from discussing the report." But "a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops in the Middle East, said the command had not received the report." Excerpts of the 24-page confidential report are online.
One official who did try to get to the bottom of the abuse charges: Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to the Washington Post, Secretary Powell repeatedly raised the issue of treatment of detainees, asking "to release as many detainees as possible -- and, second, to ensure that those in custody are properly cared for and treated." Secretary Powell "urged action in several White House meetings that included Rumsfeld."
The Washington Post reports that top officials say the chief administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer was "kicking and screaming" as early as last fall that "the United States was detaining too many Iraqis for too long and in poor conditions." According to interviews, Bremer raised his serious concerns "both in one-on-one meetings with Rumsfeld and other administration leaders, and in group meetings with the president's inner circle on national security."
Calls for Rumsfeld's resignation filled news reports today. From the cover of this week's Economist (which reads Resign, Rumsfeld) to the New York Times editorial page (headlined, "Donald Rumsfeld Should Go") the pressure is on for the Secretary of Defense to step down from his cabinet post. When asked if Rumsfeld should go, American Progress fellow Larry Korb told PBS's NewsHour last night: "I think so. I think he owes it to the men and women in the armed forces because he didn't ensure that they were properly trained and equipped to do a lot of things over there, including run the prison. I think he owes it to them because he didn't get out ahead of this story and react -- waited until the news media broke it and by doing so he endangered them over there by giving more fuel to the insurgents. I think he owes it to the president who he serves for not making him aware earlier of how serious this was in allowing him to get out ahead of it. And most of all, I think he owes it to the country because we're engaged right now in this war against terrorists, to win the hearts and minds of people in Muslim world. And unless somebody of Secretary Rumsfeld's stature goes, they will not think we're serious about these horrible things that happened in the Abu Ghraib Prison."
One thing to keep in mind: At the end of the day, ultimate responsibility lies with the Commander-in-Chief, George Bush. EJ Dionne writes in the Washington Post, "[D]umping Rumsfeld...is not enough. Ultimately the buck stops with President Bush. No, I don't think for an instant that Bush knew anything about this. That's the problem. Reports of prisoner abuse have been around since the war in Afghanistan and the opening of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president needs to explain why he wasn't more curious about what was happening, and whether his management style delegates so much authority that the White House could be caught so unprepared for this catastrophe."