Washington American abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were terrible, but they are not crimes on par with beheadings and other acts carried out by terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday.
Rumsfeld, speaking at the National Press Club, said the military was correcting the problems raised by the abuse.
"Has it been harmful to our country? Yes. Is it something that has to be corrected? Yes," he said. "Does it rank up there with chopping off someone's head off on television? It doesn't. It doesn't. Was it done as a matter of policy? No."
Pentagon investigations in recent months have said there have been some 300 allegations of prisoners killed, raped, beaten and subjected to other mistreatment at military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay since the start of the war on terror. A few of those cases amounted to torture, a senior Army investigator has said.
Rumsfeld rattled of a list of statistics aimed at showing the military is addressing the problem. He said there were 11 separate investigations into prisoner abuse, eight of which are completed. Investigators have recommended 45 people face court-martial, and a few have already been prosecuted. Twenty-three people were discharged from the military in connection with the scandal.
Shortly before Rumsfeld spoke, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts sharply criticized Rumsfeld and the Bush administration in a Senate floor speech, calling the abuses at Abu Ghraib "just one part of a much larger failure for which our soldiers have been paying a high price since day one."
Kennedy quoted from a Pentagon prison abuse investigation that laid part of the blame on too few troops, ill-trained and ill-equipped for the prison and stabilization missions. It said the Pentagon wrongly predicted that postwar Iraq would be"a relatively non-hostile environment" rather than the increasingly violent one that has developed during the occupation.
"Because of the Bush administration's arrogant ideological incompetence and its bizarre 'mission accomplished' mentality, our troops and our intelligence officers ... had neither the resources nor the guidance needed to deal with the worsening conditions that steadily began to overwhelm them and continue to do so," Kennedy said.
Another probe found "commanding officers and their staffs at various levels failed in their duties and that such failure contributed directly or indirectly to detainee abuse."
A spokesman for the campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry, said Rumsfeld's comments showed him to be a "secretary of defense who continues to evade and deny responsibility for setting the leadership climate for the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib."