Interviews

Newt Gingrich Discusses the Iraqi Prison Abuse Scandal

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," May 10,  2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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TONY SNOW, GUEST HOST: Our top story tonight:  President Bush went to the  Pentagon today for a briefing on the Abu Ghraib (search) prison scandal and reacted with disgust over new photos that the public hasn't yet seen.  After the briefing, the president came out and repeated his strong support for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (search). 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You are doing a superb job.  You are a strong Secretary of Defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW:  This comes less than a week after the White House  leaked word to the press that the president had privately admonished Rumsfeld for the handling of the prisoner abuse scandal.

Joining us now from Washington is Fox News political analyst Newt Gingrich, who wrote a piece in last Friday's "Wall Street Journal" about the Abu Ghraib prison controversy.

Mr. Speaker, let me ask you first just on the merits here,  Donald Rumsfeld, stay or go?

NEWT GINGRICH, FOX NEWS ANALYST:  He stays.  I mean, he's one of the great secretaries of defense.  He's transformed the Pentagon.  He has fought two wars successfully.  He's presiding over a difficult transformation in Iraq.  But he's a remarkable man.  And he clearly stays.  And that's what the president was saying today. 

SNOW:  Meanwhile, "The Army Times," "The Navy Times," all the military Times newspapers came out today with the same editorial saying it's time to make people -- to hold people responsible.  And they singled out the defense secretary. 

GINGRICH:  Well, I think it's pretty hard to argue in an institution that is worldwide with over two million employees, with a $400 billion annual budget, that he is personally responsible for what happened among 10 or 12  people at one particular site inside a large prison.

And I think that's why 70 percent of the American people are opposed to his stepping down.  They instinctively know that if you start down a road of saying every time something goes wrong, fire the Secretary of Defense, you will never have a confident, capable Secretary of Defense.  It's a ludicrous proposition. 

SNOW:  Senator John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services  Committee, last week said it's the worst abuse he'd ever heard of in military history.  That clearly isn't true.  There are plenty of worse atrocities.  Is this much ado about nothing, much above about very little?  Put it in perspective. 

GINGRICH:  Well, first of all, I think Senator Warner was caught up in the usual Washington hyperbole and hot rhetoric.  Compared to the French torture of prisoners in Algeria, which was systematic and deliberate, this was not anywhere near that kind of problem.  Compared to other problems around the world, this is not anywhere near that kind of problem.  Compared to the people deliberately tortured by Saddam Hussein, this is not anything like that.

But we are Americans.  We're proud of the fact that we have a unique tradition of believing that every person is endowed by their creator with rights and believing that the rule of law holds supreme.  And any American has to feel what the president felt -- disgust, anger, indignation.  And we have to condemn what happened at that prison.  We have to prosecute the guilty.  We have to find out what went wrong.  And we have to try to fix it for the future.

But we also have to recognize that out of 200,000 courageous  men and women in uniform, having 10 or 12 do something wrong is something we can condemn, but we shouldn't then condemn the entire system or condemn all those brave people risking their lives. 

SNOW:  Isn't one of the things that went wrong that neither the president nor the defense secretary, a, knew about the photos until a very late date?  It appears that a lot of this stuff got bottled up.  And then at the end of the day, the president and Donald Rumsfeld are left holding the bag. 

GINGRICH:  I think there's clearly something wrong in the process here.  And I would hope that the Secretary of Defense would be establishing a -- some kind of serious study outside the chain of command to make sure that we understand what went wrong.

Why -- you know, why wasn't this sent to this sent to the  secretary's office the first time somebody in Baghdad knew about it? This is clearly -- if you have any common sense at all, this is clearly a very dangerous, very difficult problem.  And if they had known about it back last fall when it first was surfaced in Baghdad, they could have handled it I think much better with foreknowledge.  And I think that's why the president was angry last week.

And frankly, as a former speaker of the house, I don't blame him.  You don't -- and I don't blame Senator Warner.  You don't want people in positions or responsibility learning by surprise on page 1 of the newspaper or on the news channel, even if it's Fox.  You don't want them learning about these problems that way.  That's why you have a chain of command that clearly failed in  this instance. 

SNOW:  The president now has seen new pictures and videos.  Do you think the public has a right to see them?  Or do you think we've seen enough already?

GINGRICH:  I suspect they're all going to come out in the end.  We live in the age of digital communication.  It is very unlikely they'll stay bottled up unless they are the only copy anywhere in the world.  And how can you possibly know that?

So it's not a question of the right to know.  It's a reality.  We should all brace ourselves.  I think we will find some disgusting things that just further emphasize what we already know, which is that 10 or 12 people had no common sense, no sense of decency, and  engaged in actions that are horrible and should be condemned and will be punished. 

SNOW:  Do you think the president has let this crisis get a little too far ahead of him?  Couldn't he have come out at some earlier juncture and at least admit that this thing is coming up and prepared the public a little better?

GINGRICH:  Well, I think both he and Secretary Rumsfeld were clearly caught off guard.  I think the fact that the secretary said on Friday to the Armed Services Committee and the Senate that he still had not gotten some of this material.  Something broke down.  I think that's, frankly, as troubling as the incident itself.  Something broke down in the chain of command.  And neither the secretary nor the president were being well served because somewhere in Baghdad,  people weren't doing their job. 

SNOW:  All right, Mr. Speaker, stand by.  We'll have more with the speaker in a moment and analysis of the prison abuse  controversy, including how it may affect the upcoming election.  Is this a big political opportunity for John Kerry?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SNOW:  Continuing now with Newt Gingrich and our coverage of the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.  Today "The Military Times" released a scathing editorial on the situation.  I referred to it in the previous segment.

Here's a quote.  "While responsibility begins with the six soldiers facing criminal charges, it extends all the way up the chain of command to the highest reaches of the military hierarchy and its civilian leadership.  The entire affair is a failure of leadership from start to finish.  From the moment they are captured, prisoners are hooded, shackled and isolated.  The message to the troops:  Anything goes.' 

All right, Newt Gingrich.  First question, do you think that last part about hooded,  shackled, and so on is true in each and every case?

GINGRICH:  All right, it's clearly not true in each and every case.  And the question is as, you know, my very good friend Rich Galen, who just came back from months of serving in Baghdad as a  press spokesman, he made the point that most of the people we're describing were people actively trying to kill Americans, many of them acting as terrorists, many of them fighting in civilian clothing, which is outside the rules of law.  And in some cases you have every right to isolate them because you don't want them talking with each other.  You're trying to get intelligence information.

There is some reason to believe that these military police units were not trained well enough in what they could and could not do.  And I think there are some systems problems there that we've got to look at.

But remember, this is also only in the last three years that  we've come to grips with the fact that we're fighting opponents who routinely violate the rules of war.  Opponents who last Sunday killed a woman and four children -- five children in Israel.  She was pregnant.  They killed -- they deliberately went out of their way to shoot the baby.  She was eight months pregnant.  And we're against opponents who drag American corpses through the streets in Fallujah.  We're against opponents who kill an Italian hostage on videotape.

SNOW:  OK, we...

GINGRICH:  So I think you got to start with -- that doesn't mean we should break the rules of law, but it does mean that these are not  normal military prisoners...

SNOW:  Right...

GINGRICH:  ...and that we are not going to be handled.

SNOW:  That's right, that part of Abu Ghraib prison was set aside for people who, as you pointed out, are terrorists.

Let me ask you a different question.  One of the things that's  happened is that the military appointed a general, General Taguba to go ahead and study this.  Within six weeks, they had essentially  indictments against people who were responsible.  They also had changed operations, the relationship between military police and military intelligence.  They had cleaned up the chain of command.  We are already talking about a story that by and large has already been fixed, hasn't it?

GINGRICH:  Well, we don't know.  And I think the reason we don't know is the fact that nobody in Baghdad thought to come to the  Pentagon, brief them thoroughly, and brace them for this leads you to wonder what other bad news hasn't come up yet?

And so I think there's every reason to believe the Secretary of Defense needs to go outside the traditional chain of  command, have his own team go and survey everything, and be absolutely certain that he can look the president in the eye and say I have fixed this. 

And I will go back to your point.  On the surface, you would think that this is a story about a past problem, a past  embarrassment about something that's already been fixed.  But I don't think anybody in Washington, either in the Pentagon or the White House, feels with 100 percent certainty that they can say that today because there were breakdowns in the chain of command. 

SNOW:  So there's a fear there may still be a cover-up going on?

GINGRICH:  Right, and I think that's a legitimate fear.  And we've certainly have had other examples, the My Lai incident for example, where you didn't have an active, overt effort to fix it.  You had an effort to cover it up.  And people who were trying to fix it were, in fact, being ostracized at the very time they were trying to fix it. 

SNOW:  John Kerry and other Democrats have been calling for Donald Rumsfeld's ouster.  As a politician, smart strategy or dumb strategy?

GINGRICH:  Well, I think when a majority of the Democrats don't think you should resign, and that was the result of one poll I saw in the last few days, you have to wonder why the Democratic politicians are more shallow and more frantic than their followers.

I think the average American knows that it would be a terrible precedent for Secretary Rumsfeld to resign.  It would absolutely cripple the ability of senior leadership to get things done.  And the average American knows this is the shallowest and cheapest kind of politics.  And in that sense, I suspect it makes Senator Kerry look more shallow and cheaper than he did before this latest stunt. 

SNOW:  Do you think the Defense Secretary and the president should have apologized for things they didn't do and that they knew nothing about?

GINGRICH:  I think given the emotions and given how deeply repugnant this is to Americans, it was legitimate to say on behalf of American, -- of America, we apologize that anyone in American custody had this happen to them.  And we condemn it.

But I don't think they should back off one inch from raising the same standard for Syria, where the dictatorship killed 30,000 people deliberately, for raising the same standard for Egypt, for Iran, for other dictatorships.  I don't think we want to get into a look how bad the Americans are model because it is simply not true. 

SNOW:  And when it comes to interrogations, they still should be tough but they should obey the rules. 

GINGRICH:  They have to obey the law, but we also have to understand  there are ground rules when you're dealing with a person  who is not fighting in uniform, is not part of a regular military.  Somebody sets out to be a terrorist, has a different and tougher set of rules than a normal military prisoner of war. 

SNOW:  Mr. Speaker, thanks.

GINGRICH:  Glad to be with you.

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