WASHINGTON – President Bush examined new photos and video clips of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners Monday, reacting with "deep disgust and disbelief" during a Pentagon visit in which he underscored his support for embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search).
The president spent the morning in damage-control mode at the Pentagon, where he convened an extraordinary gathering of top military, diplomatic, legal and intelligence advisers.
Seeking to douse speculation about Rumsfeld's future, Bush stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the secretary — along with Vice President Dick Cheney (search), Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), CIA Director George Tenet (search) and other civilian and military officials — to offer a testimonial before television cameras. Then Bush went behind closed doors to view about two-dozen video clips and photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
White House and Pentagon officials went out of their way to let it be known that Bush saw pictures the public had not, part of an effort to position the president ahead of the unfolding election-year controversy. Until Monday, Bush had seen only pictures obtained by the news media — a state of affairs that led him to scold Rumsfeld last week.
Rumsfeld's spokesman, Larry Di Rita, called the images "disturbing," and said they showed humiliation of prisoners as well as "inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature." They were consistent with what has been seen in photographs published around the world in recent days, Di Rita said.
"The president's reaction was one of deep disgust and disbelief that anyone who wears our uniform would engage in such shameful and appalling acts," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "It does not represent our United States military and it does not represent the United States of America."
Bush said in his public remarks, "The conduct that has come to light is an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency."
The Pentagon has not yet decided whether to make the videos public, and White House officials repeatedly sidestepped questions about the president's opinion on that subject. Bush twice ignored reporters' questions about the matter.
McClellan did say the administration was seeking a way to share them with Congress, so lawmakers can "carry out their oversight responsibility."
A highly unusual gathering of Bush officials at the Pentagon illustrated the gravity of the prison-abuse controversy. It was a meeting first proposed several weeks ago, but one that gained urgency over the weekend, when several additional officials, including Cheney, were told to report.
Rumsfeld's executive dining room was transformed into a TV studio for the president to address a bank of cameras, a handful of journalists and a gaggle of top aides.
Rumsfeld stood on one side of Bush, Cheney on the other. Cheney left the Pentagon ahead of Bush to campaign in New Hampshire and Maine.
Also on hand were Powell; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley; White House chief of staff Andy Card, CIA Director Tenet; Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs; John Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
They sought to project unity at a time when the prisoner-abuse matter has strained his team. Above all, Bush wanted to buck up Rumsfeld, who faced new questions about his fitness to serve.
"You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror," Bush said. "You're doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."
The defense secretary stood with his hands clasped behind his back during Bush's remarks.
The Army Times, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper read by a quarter-million troops around the world, said in an editorial that responsibility for the abuse lies at the highest levels of the Pentagon, including Rumsfeld and Myers. Both men are guilty of "professional negligence," the editorial said.
His voice still hoarse from three long days of campaigning last week, the president also used the appearance to offer a lengthy, favorable progress report on military operations in Iraq.
His remarks came on a day when the military reported three more U.S. soldiers' deaths between Saturday and Monday.
Bush said twice that the United States is "on the offensive," and used the phrase again in an interview with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. He cited patrols and raids in Ramadi, Husabayah and Karmah, and said Marines would "ensure that Fallujah ceases to become an enemy sanctuary."
In the interview, Bush sought to bolster troops worried that the scandal has tarnished their reputation worldwide.
"The actions of a few will not be allowed to stain the honor of the mighty United States military," Bush said.