WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) has decided to personally sign condolence letters to the family members of U.S. troops killed in action rather than letting a machine affix his signature.
Republican and Democratic members of Congress criticized the embattled Pentagon chief on Sunday for not signing the letters himself all along.
"My goodness, that's the least that we could expect of the secretary of defense, is having some personal attention paid by him," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (search), R-Neb., noting that President Bush signs such letters himself.
"If the president of the United States can find time to do that, why can't the Secretary of Defense?" Hagel, a Vietnam (search) veteran, asked on CBS' "Face the Nation."
In a statement Friday, Rumsfeld announced the change in policy and said more than 1,000 condolence letters had gone out to relatives of Americans killed in military action during the global fight against terrorism.
"While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter," Rumsfeld said in the statement.
"I am deeply grateful for the many letters I have received from the families of those who have been killed in the service of our country, and I recognize and honor their personal loss," he said.
The statement, which was reported Friday by the military newspaper, Stars & Stripes, did not specifically refer to troops killed in Iraq, though family members of soldiers who died there told the newspaper they were angry with Rumsfeld's apparent stamped signature. More than 1,300 American troops have died since the war began in March 2003.
Messages left with the Pentagon about the criticism from lawmakers were not immediately returned Sunday.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate, said Rumsfeld's failure to sign letters himself until now displayed "his lack of leadership styles that are appropriate for the military."
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking Republican in the House said in a televised interview that "signing the letter is a mechanical but an important thing."
"It's better for him to do it and he's acknowledged that. It was a mistake and it was a mistake that he's now said he will rectify," Blunt said.
The signature flap was the latest in a stinging string of criticism in recent weeks of the defense secretary's handling of the war in Iraq.
Several leading Republicans, including Hagel and Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and John McCain of Arizona have said they have lost confidence in Rumsfeld. Lott last week said he thought Bush should replace Rumsfeld in the next year.
But Rumsfeld, who agreed to Bush's request earlier this month to remain in the Cabinet during the president's second term, won a vote of confidence from Bush chief of staff Andrew Card on Sunday.
"Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job," Card told ABC's "This Week."