Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers and said the Defense Department would move vigorously to bring those responsible to justice. The Army said 20 investigations into prisoner deaths and assaults were under way in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Any who engaged in such action let down their comrades who serve honorably each day and they let down their country," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference. Such abuse is "totally unacceptable and un-American," he said.
He also said investigations were being opened to determine whether abuses occurred in other prisons and prison camps run by the U.S. military, including the Guantanamo Bay detention center for suspected terrorists.
Asked about how what occurred at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad would affect the U.S. image around the world, Rumsfeld said it was "clearly ... unhelpful in a fundamental way. It's harmful.
"It is, we hope, an isolated case," he added.
Later the Army disclosed that there have been 35 U.S. military criminal investigations into allegations of prisoner abuse and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2002. Of those, 10 investigations into deaths and 10 assault inquiries are under way, Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, the Army's Provost Marshal, told reporters. He visited the Iraqi prison system last fall.
Ryder said that in addition to the pending cases, one homicide case has been completed. Another official said the U.S. soldier who was found guilty in that case was discharged from the service, but the official did not say whether that was in Iraq or Afghanistan. Another official said the soldier killed the prisoner with a rock. Another homicide case that is not yet complete involves a CIA contractor.
Ryder also said 12 other deaths at U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan were found to be of undetermined cause or of natural causes. Another death was ruled a justifiable homicide.
Earlier, lawmakers emerged from a closed-door briefing with Pentagon officials and said abuses similar to those recently disclosed may also have occurred at Iraqi facilities and in Afghanistan.
"There were some incidents in Afghanistan," said Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We did not get the full details but were left with the impression that they were relatively isolated and certainly small in number."
But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he feared allegations made public so far are "the beginning rather than the end" of the abuse allegations.
The sexual humiliation photographed in the Abu Ghraib prison — which has drawn worldwide condemnation — is "as serious a problem of breakdown in discipline as I've ever observed," Warner said.
Rumsfeld said the Navy inspector general had been asked to assess the prisons at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and at the Charleston, S.C., Naval Station Brig, where war-on-terror detainees are being held.
He said it was "premature" to know if similar abuses had occurred in other prisons run by the U.S. military, including those in Afghanistan.
In Baghdad, Iraq's U.S.-appointed Human Rights Minister Abdul-Basat al-Turki said Tuesday he had resigned to protest abuses by American guards, and Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi demanded that Iraqi officials be allowed to help run the prisons.
Al-Turki said he resigned "not only because I believe that the use of violence is a violation of human rights but also because these methods in the prisons means that the violations are a common act."
Many of the allegations of abuse were contained in an internal Pentagon report completed in February.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., demanded to know why President Bush was not earlier informed of the report and why Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers have not yet read the two-month old report.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Bush first became aware of the allegations of abuse some time after the Pentagon began looking into it but did not see the pictures until they were made public last week and did not learn of the classified Pentagon report until news organizations reported its existence.
Rumsfeld said he had read an executive summary of the report. He denied any foot dragging by the Pentagon and said the correct military procedures were being followed.
"These things are complicated, they take some time," he said of the investigations. "The system works."
Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said the February report had been moving up the chain of command. "There had been no attempt to hide this," said Pace, who joined Rumsfeld in briefing reporters at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld called the allegations "deeply disturbing."
"We're taking and will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those who may have violated the code of military conduct and betrayed the trust placed in them by the American people," Rumsfeld said.
Meanwhile, an attorney for a military police officer being investigated in the abuse probe, said on NBC's "Today" show that the photographs of the Iraq prisoners "were obviously staged" in order to manipulate the prisoners into cooperating with intelligence officials.
"It was being controlled and devised by the military intelligence community and other governmental agencies, including the CIA," said Guy Womack, attorney for Charles A. Graner, Jr., a Greene County, Pa. corrections officer who was activated to the military in March 2003 and served at Abu Ghraib.
The soldiers were simply "following orders," the attorney said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said abuses would not be tolerated or excused.
"The rules for the treatment of prisoners of war are very clear," McCain said. "There is no justification for this kind of treatment."
On March 20, criminal charges were filed against six military police officers. As many as three of the six cases have been referred to military trial, and others are in various stages of preliminary hearings, officials said.
In addition to the criminal cases, seven others — all military police — have been given noncriminal punishment — in six of the cases they got letters of reprimand. Some of the seven are members of the Army Reserve, according to a defense official with direct knowledge of the situation.
In other developments, the top U.N. human rights agency has opened an investigation into civil rights in Iraq, and urged the U.S. military to prosecute soldiers alleged to have abused prisoners.
And, U.S. officials in Baghdad ordered a halt to using hoods to blindfold Iraqi prisoners, a military spokesman said, in the wake of the uproar over abuse of detainees.