Victims include Afghans and Iraqis, two of whom might have been murdered, the Pentagon says. Bush will talk to Arab media today.
WASHINGTON — Twenty-five Iraqi and Afghan war prisoners have died in U.S. custody in the last 17 months, including two Iraqi detainees who may have been murdered by Americans, senior defense officials said Tuesday as the Bush administration moved to contain international outrage over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Pentagon officials released few details of the 25 deaths, which they said were among 35 cases of possible instances of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers.
President Bush today will begin giving interviews to Arab media to help mitigate Arab — and international — furor over graphic photographs of naked detainees being humiliated by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. White House officials revealed that Bush was made aware in late December or early January of allegations of abuse at the prison.
On Tuesday, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made statements condemning the abuse, saying the president had demanded that those responsible be held accountable.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans called for a congressional investigation of the military’s handling of the scandal and strongly criticized the Pentagon’s failure to inform lawmakers.
There also were suggestions that similar problems existed at facilities used to house Afghan war prisoners as early as 2001.
In Baghdad, the new U.S. detention chief in Iraq said Tuesday that the military planned to reduce drastically the detainee population at the notorious jail and had embarked on a broad plan to eliminate abuse of prisoners throughout Iraq.
“There were errors made. We have corrected them,” Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller told journalists.
Rice, in an interview aired on Al Arabiya satellite television channel, sought to counter the fallout from the widely publicized graphic photos.
“I want to assure people in the Arab world, Iraq, around the world, and the American people, that the president is determined to get to the bottom of it, to know who is responsible and to make sure that whoever is responsible is punished for it and held accountable,” Rice said.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage appeared in an interview Tuesday on U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra Arabic-language television, calling the mistreatment “despicable.”
In an appearance Tuesday at the United Nations, Powell said, “What they did was illegal, against all regulations, against all standards. It was immoral.”
Powell, like other administration officials, said the U.S. had acted rapidly and responsibly when it learned of the abuse. But he acknowledged that he was worried about adverse effects on American standing abroad.
“Yes, I’m deeply concerned at the horrible image this has sent around the world,” Powell said. “But at the same time, I want to remind the world that it’s a small number of troops who acted in an illegal, improper manner.”
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld promised to take “whatever steps are necessary” to punish anyone who violated military law in the treatment of detainees.
“The actions of the soldiers in those photographs are totally unacceptable and un-American,” Rumsfeld said. “Any who engaged in such action let down their comrades who serve honorably each day, and they let down their country.”
Rumsfeld and Army officials detailed 35 investigations of alleged criminal misconduct by American personnel who handled detainees, all since December 2002. Ten of the 35 cases involved rape, assault and other injuries and are still under investigation, said Gen. George Casey, the Army’s vice chief of staff.
Of the 25 reported deaths, 12 were labeled “undetermined or natural” causes. Ten others remain under investigation.
Of the three remaining deaths, one was an Iraqi who was killed by an American guard while trying to escape. The shooting death was later ruled to be a “justifiable homicide,” Casey said.
In the remaining two cases, the slayings of Iraqi detainees were found to have been unjustified, said another Army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. One soldier at a forward operating camp was convicted of using excessive force in September by shooting an Iraqi detainee who was throwing rocks at him. That soldier, who was not named, was downgraded in rank from specialist to private and discharged from the Army but not jailed.
The second case, of a CIA contract worker who allegedly killed an Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib in November, was referred to the Justice Department, the official said. The civilian could not be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, officials said.
All but one of the abuse allegations involved Army soldiers, Casey said. The exception involved an employee of an “other government agency,” a term often used to describe CIA operatives.
In the Abu Ghraib abuse case, six soldiers, as yet unnamed, face criminal charges in court-martial proceedings, and six others have received letters of reprimand, Pentagon officials said.
More disciplinary actions are expected. An investigation is pending of military intelligence officers, including Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who remains the military intelligence brigade commander although he was specifically named in a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba that detailed the misconduct at Abu Ghraib and another prison at Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq.
Taguba’s report recommended that Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the Army Reserve’s 800th Military Police Brigade, be disciplined for failing to ensure that guards under her command clearly defined procedures and followed them.
Karpinski is on leave, Casey said.
The disclosure of the 35 abuse cases came as congressional Democrats and Republicans prepared to investigate what Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) described as the most serious “breakdown of discipline” he had ever seen in the armed services.
Across Capitol Hill, senators expressed outrage over the reports of abuse and promised to hold more hearings and to summon Rumsfeld to testify before them. Several noted that they were not notified of the mistreatment even after defense officials sought to delay the broadcast of photographs of the abuses.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, considered photos of the abuses so inflammatory that he had urged producers of “60 Minutes II” to delay airing them for fear they could affect Iraqi public opinion during a crucial standoff in Fallouja.
“It’s very disturbing that the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Congress were kept in the dark,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of that committee, said in an interview.
Casey and other Pentagon officials outlined a series of changes mandated for U.S. facilities housing detainees. Among them: new leaders at Abu Ghraib, closer coordination between the head of military intelligence and the head of military police, a single officer — Miller — taking charge of all detainees in Iraq, additional training on the Geneva Convention and military rules of engagement for all new units at the prisons, and the hiring of 24 corrections and legal experts to help train soldiers.
At Abu Ghraib, commanders have banned techniques such as sleep deprivation, the use of hoods, threats, leaving prisoners naked and putting them in pain-producing positions, said Miller, who arrived in Iraq last month after running the prisoner compound at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Commanders also have reduced the population of Abu Ghraib, which had about 6,000 inmates, to approximately 3,800. The military plans to bring the number down to 1,500-2,000, Miller said. The Army has embarked on an accelerated program of releasing inmates not deemed dangerous.
Times staff writers Hendren reported from Washington and McDonnell from Baghdad. Times staff writers Richard Simon in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.