WASHINGTON – Sen. Dick Durbin (search) went to the Senate floor late Tuesday to offer his apologies to anyone who may have been offended by his comparison of treatment of detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Nazis, Soviet gulags and Cambodia's Pol Pot.
"More than most people, a senator lives by his words ... occasionally words fail us, occasionally we will fail words," Durbin, D-Ill., said.
"I am sorry if anything I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time. Nothing, nothing should ever be said to demean or diminish that moral tragedy.
"I am also sorry if anything I said cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military. ... I never ever intended any disrespect for them. Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line. To them I extend my heartfelt apology," Durbin said, choking on his words.
"They're the best," he said of U.S. service men and women.
"I think it was the right thing to do and the right thing to say to our men and women in uniform," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist called Durbin's apology "an honorable step" along the road to understanding how words strengthen the nation's enemies in the war against terror.
"Intended or not, damage was being done," Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "It's a lesson that we all learn over and over again and again."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in an interview that was to air Wednesday on FOX News Radio's "The Tony Snow Show," tried to equate Durbin's comment with actress Jane Fonda's calling U.S. soldiers war criminals during a visit to North Vietnam in 1972.
"Some people always in their lives say something they wish they hadn't said," Rumsfeld said. "We just watched Jane Fonda run around trying to recover from the things she did and said during the Vietnam War. ... He said some things and he's going to have to live with them, and I think that that's not a happy prospect."
Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood said Rumsfeld stands by his statements, even in light of the apology.
Durbin said in the course of his remarks on June 14, he raised "legitimate concerns" about U.S. policy toward prisoners and whether their treatment makes America safer.
Durbin read from an FBI report that included descriptions of one case at Gitmo in which a detainee was held in such cold temperatures that he shivered, another in which a prisoner was held in heat passing 100 degrees, one in which prisoners were left in isolation so long they fouled themselves and one where a prisoner was chained to the floor and forced to listen to loud rap music.
"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings," Durbin said last week.
After the uproar that followed those remarks, Durbin said he was not comparing U.S. soldiers to Pol Pot (search), Nazis or Soviet guards, but was "attributing this form of interrogation to repressive regimes such as those that I note."
Durbin attempted to clarify his remarks last Thursday evening and then again Friday, saying that he regretted if people did not understand his historic analogies, and he suggested that he could not verify the accuracy of the FBI document.
"If this indeed occurred, it does not represent American values. It does not represent what our country stands for, it is not the sort of conduct we would ever condone ... and that is the point I was making. Now, sadly, we have a situation here where some in the right-wing media have said that I have been insulting men and women in uniform. Nothing could be further from truth," Durbin said.
According to his spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, one reason the senator apologized was "this loud, continuous drumbeat of misinformation that was being broadcast and printed."
But on Tuesday, he left little room for second-guessing whether he considered his remarks an error.
"After reading the horrible details in that memo which characterized the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, I then, on my own, my own words, made some characterizations about that memo ... I have come to understand that was a very poor choice of words," he said.
Under Pol Pot's regime, 1.5 million died in death camps and another 200,000 so-called "enemies of the state" were executed. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews and forced hundreds of thousands into slave labor. The USSR's Joseph Stalin (search) sent 25 million people to labor camps where many were worked to death.
While more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers have died helping to liberate Iraq first from Saddam Hussein and then from a deadly insurgency, no detainees at Guantanamo Bay have died in custody.
Durbin pledged to "continue to speak out on the issues that I think are important to the people of Illinois and the nation," but added that he did not mean to diminish the image of the United States in the world.
"I don't want anything in my public career to detract from my love for this country, my respect for those who serve it and this great Senate. I offer my apologies to those who were offended," he said.
Immediately after his remarks, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he thought Durbin made a "heartfelt statement" and he was satisfied with the apology.
"He did the right thing, the courageous thing and I think we can put the situation behind us," McCain said.
In a written statement, Frist said: "Senator Durbin's apology was a necessary and appropriate step in repairing the harm his earlier remarks have had on the image of the millions of fine men and women serving in America's military. As members of Congress we must always be sensitive to the fact that it is their struggles and sacrifices that keep us safe in the War on Terror," he said.
Asked what the next step for Durbin would be, an aide to Frist told FOX News, "Well, when you say something that appears all over Al Jazeera, you have a lot of work to do."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.