Amid demands by Democrats for his resignation, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today apologized to Iraqi prisoners abused in U.S. custody and to the president, Congress and American people for not informing them sooner of the gravity of the situation.

Donald Rumsfeld

“To those Iraqis who were mistreated by American forces, I offer my deepest apology,” Rumsfeld said in prepared remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The abuse, he added, was “certainly fundamentally un-American.”

Rumsfeld also called for formation of an independent commission to look into the abuses and the Defense Department’s response, a move that goes beyond the internal Pentagon investigations ordered. Democrats, however, have called for a bipartisan congressional probe.

The commission is to report its findings within 45 days, Rumsfeld said.

The defense secretary’s opening statement was interrupted by protesters from a feminist antiwar group called Code Pink, who held a sign declaring “Fire Rumsfeld” and shouted, “What about the other abuses in Iraq?” They immediately were escorted from the hearing room while Rumsfeld waited quietly.

Rumsfeld said he lamented the damage done to the reputations of American forces, “who are truly wonderful human beings.”

“To the president, Congress and American people, I wish I had been able to convey the gravity of this before it came out in the media … ,” he said.

“I wish we had known more sooner and been able to tell you more sooner.”

But Rumsfeld also admitted he “failed to recognize how important it was to elevate a problem of such gravity” to the appropriate level.

“These events occurred on my watch as secretary of defense,” he stated. “I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility.”

‘Anguish’ over photos

Some members of Congress have expressed anger because they did not find out about graphic photos of the abuse until they were broadcast on the CBS program “60 minutes II” last Wednesday.

Rumsfeld said he and his colleagues were deeply pained upon learning of the abuses and seeing the photographs that have been splashed across newspapers and television screens in media worldwide.

“If you could have seen the anguish expressed by those in our department upon seeing those photos, you would know how we feel today,” he said.

Rumsfeld warned “there are a lot more photographs and videos that exist. If these are released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse. That’s just a fact.”

“I mean I looked at them last night and they’re hard to believe,” he said. “And if they’re sent to some news organization and taken out of the criminal prosecution channels that they’re in, that’s where we’ll be. And it’s not a pretty picture.”

The testimony comes on the heels of the International Red Cross’s assertion the abuses were not individual acts but represented a broad “pattern and a system.”

The abuse went beyond the Abu Ghraib prison in the Baghdad area, claimed Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who said the agency warned U.S. officials of the problem more than a year ago.

The Red Cross delivered a previously confidential report to the Bush administration earlier this year that raised allegations of abuse, sometimes “tantamount to torture,” the Wall Street Journal reported. The charges included prisoners being kept naked in empty cells, beaten by coalition forces and fired on from watchtowers, killing some.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and other Democrats have called for Rumsfeld’s resignation.

President Bush said yesterday Rumsfeld “is a really good secretary of defense. Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars. He’s an important part of my Cabinet and he’ll stay in my Cabinet.”

Rumsfeld was joined in the hearing by Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee; Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker; and Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command.

They also testified at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee this afternoon.

‘CNN was there’

Responding to questions from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Rumsfeld and Myers denied the existence of any cover-up, insisting the U.S. Central Command first informed the media of an investigation into abuses Jan. 16, just days after a report by a whistleblower.

“They told everyone in the world there were allegations of abuse and they were being investigated,” Rumsfeld said.

On March 20, he continued, Central Command “announced not only allegations, but they listed the types of abuses. CNN was there asking questions.”

“The idea it was broken by media is not true,” Rumsfeld said, noting the military’s report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, with the photographs, was seen by media last week before it got to the Pentagon.

When those photographs came out in the media, he said, the president was “just as blindsided as [I was] and the Congress and everyone else.”

“It is the photographs that gives one the vivid realization of what actually took place,” Rumsfeld said. “Words don’t do it … you read that and it’s one thing, you see the photographs and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged.”

Myers noted some of the information was not released earlier because it could jeopardize the criminal investigations under way.

Defending the Pentagon’s response, Rumsfeld emphasized the six court martials related to the investigation are among 3,000 currently under way. There were 18,000 last year, he noted.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., referring to a Pentagon statement in January 2002, suggested Rumsfeld had created an atmosphere in the U.S. military in which the Geneva Convention would not be followed.

The Bush administration, for various legal reasons, decided not to apply the Geneva Convention to al-Qaida prisoners but vowed to treat them according to the same standards.

Replying to Clinton, Rumsfeld said, “I can’t conceive of anyone looking at the pictures and suggesting that anyone could have recommended, condoned or encouraged that those [abuses in Iraq] take place.”

President Bush, he said, announced in 2002 that al-Qaida prisoners in Guantanamo would be treated consistently with the Geneva Convention, and “that is a fact.”

Rumsfeld also contested Clinton’s assertion that the Taguba report was well known and therefore he and other administration officials should have raised the alarm.

“You say the report was well known; I don’t know how you known that,” Rumsfeld said, stating, when it was made public, “I do not believe it was anywhere in the Pentagon.”

‘How far up the chain?’

Clinton’s questions followed up the assertion of the ranking Democratic member of the Senate panel, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, that the “decision to not invoke the Geneva Convention” on al-Qaida prisoners “invites our enemies to do the same” and “sends a disturbing message to the world” that the U.S. is not bound by its standards.

“How far up the chain was approval or knowledge of the abuses?” Levin asked in his opening statement.

“If the allegations are true, he said, “the planners of this process are at least as guilty as those who carried out these abuses.”

Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas summarized suggestions by Levin and other panel members, pointedly asking Rumsfeld whether military policies, related to acquring information from prisoners, had anything to do with what happened.

“Certainly not to my knowledge,” Rumsfeld said. “The idea you would have regulations that would condone or encourage that type of thing is not comprehensible.”

Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina asked Rumsfeld the question raised – and answered even before the hearing – by many Democrats, Do you think you should resign?

“If I felt I could not be effective, I would resign in a minute,” he said.

But he added: “I would not resign simply because people insist on making a political issue of it.”

Yesterday, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called on Rumsfeld to step down.

“For the good of our country, the safety of our troops, and our image around the globe, Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. If he does not resign forthwith, the president should fire him,” Harkin said in a statement.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., told lawmakers Rumsfeld should be impeached if he does not step down.

“I think America and the world wants us to show the outrage not by rhetoric, but by taking action,” Rangel said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., agreed with colleagues who wanted apologies from senior officials, but sounded an entirely different tone from those who demand Rumsfeld’s resignation.

“I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, have never apologized,” he said, as well as those who have killed American soldiers in Iraq and “those who murdered and burned four Americans in Fallujah.”

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