NEW YORK, N.Y. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Thursday the abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison (search) came about because the Bush administration had a "laxity of command up and down."
"This administration has made an egregious error in the laxity of a command control. And I am convinced this didn't happen just because six or seven people decided to make it happen in a prison. It happened as a matter of what was going on in terms of interrogation and the laxity of command up and down," Kerry said in an exclusive interview with Fox News' Alan Colmes (search).
The Bush administration has taken an aggressive stand to counter charges that it held a permissive view of prisoner abuse. President Bush was interviewed on Arab television. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (search) testified before Congress last week at which time he apologized for the abuse to the Arab world and promised justice for the culprits. Rumsfeld also went to Iraq Thursday for a surprise visit aimed at boosting troop morale.
Kerry said he thought it was appropriate for Rumsfeld to make his surprise visit to the troops — and to Abu Ghraib prison itself.
"I'm glad that the secretary of defense went there," he said. "I think it's always important and good for a secretary to visit with the troops. The troop morale needs, I think, that kind of visit, and I'm glad he went."
"But I don't think it changes the dynamics of what America still needs to do to get to the bottom of this, and -- and I don't think it camouflages what has to be done," he added.
Kerry also accused Bush of pushing away potential allies in the occupation of Iraq and jeopardizing the United States' mission there.
"This administration has had an arrogant policy that has pushed people aside," he said, "that has not invited them to share in the reconstruction, that has not permitted them to share in the decision-making, and so they stand back. And that is not in the interest of our troops. It's not for the interests of our nation."
Kerry said he has laid out several steps that should be taken to increase international involvement in Iraq, including sitting down and talking "in a very personal way" with leaders of other countries, sharing decision-making and reconstruction there and getting together the United Nations, NATO or another "group of international players" to recognize its "global responsibility." He said he would get a U.N. resolution authorizing action in Iraq.
"Statesmanship and leadership are the art of persuading people who might otherwise have reservations of their interests," he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot (search) responded to Kerry's ideas for Iraq, suggesting that the Democratic candidate's plans to "internationalize" the security and reconstruction of Iraq vary frequently.
"I don't think Senator Kerry articulates any kind of policy," Racicot said, adding that Kerry's call to internationalize "is still the subject of some definition to me."
Racicot also criticized Kerry for what he said is a pattern of saying whatever it is he thinks people want to hear.
"You tell the audience what you think it is that will gain favor," he said, citing Kerry's fluctuating positions on funding for troops and commitment to the environment. "These are revelations of his character."
Asked what he thought about the GOP's repeated replaying of his comment that he voted for the $87 billion emergency supplemental bill before voting against it, the Massachusetts senator chalked it up to diversionary tactics.
"I think it's Republican games of an administration that can't run on its own record. This is unprecedented in American history, that a sitting president, an incumbent, is spending $70 million in destructive, negative, misleading, distorting advertising to try to undo the candidacy of a person in another party not yet even nominated. Unprecedented," Kerry said. He added that if the administration can clearly track what it plans to do with the $25 billion in extra money it has requested for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would support the measure in Congress.
Kerry expressed sympathy for the parents of Nicholas Berg (search), the American citizen whose beheading was captured on videotape and shown on an Islamic Web site this week. The CIA said Thursday Berg was most likely executed by terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search).
"If I lost one of my children that way," he said, "visibly, learning about it the way he did, I -- I mean, I'd personally give up whatever I'm doing and I'd spend the rest of my life trying to bring those people to justice."
However, he said, "that doesn't change the impact of what has happened in that prison through our own efforts, which have put American troops at greater risk, put Americans at greater risk, tarnished all of us and, I think, been a great disservice to the effort that we have been engaged in over there."
Kerry dismissed as politics comments by Vietnam veterans who have attacked him on his criticisms of the war and defended the anti-war stance he took when he returned from fighting in Vietnam. "When I came back I found my way of opposing it and I'm proud of it. I stood up and I saved lives and I'm sorry that some people want to go back and re-debate the war."
"[If] Dick Cheney and George Bush want to have a debate about the war in Vietnam, I'll meet them anywhere in the country and we can talk about what they were doing, and we'll talk about what I was doing. And I'm happy to do that."
Kerry also attacked the president on the size of the U.S. trade deficit and his handling of the economy and job creation.
"There's nothing conservative about this administration," he said, chiding Bush on spending and the deficit.
"On the four years of this presidency, President George Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover who will have lost jobs during his presidency. That's the bottom line," Kerry said, returning to familiar campaign rhetoric. He added that there are 4 million more Americans who don't have health care, college kids who can't afford tuition and prices on gasoline and health care are soaring.
'Influence and Respect in the World Back to America'
Kerry said that, if elected in November, he would restore "truth" to the White House and "respect" for the nation from the world.
"I'm going to bring truth and responsibility back to the White House, and I'm going to bring influence and respect in the world back to America," he said.
Kerry vowed several changes in the handling of the economy that he said would benefit American workers more than the policies of Bush.
"We are currently asking American workers to subsidize the loss of their own job. Think about that ... I'm going to end that."
To set the U.S. economy back on the right track, Kerry said the next president must be "fair in your tax code and by creating jobs that create more money." He added that the 1 percent tax increase he plans for wealthy Americans won't pay for all the programs he has in mind, and he is considering other avenues of revenue. He promised he would cut the deficit in half in four years.
On Bush's record as an incumbent, Kerry said he thinks Bush "doesn't have a record to run on. He has a record to run away from. So Karl Rove has decided the only way he can win is to try to attack John Kerry."
"I think we can do a better job of defending America," he said, adding that the Bush-Cheney '04 Campaign has spent an "unprecedented" amount on media attacks, and that after the dust has settled, he thinks he's still "doing just fine" in the polls.
Asked about choosing a running mate, Kerry said: "When I choose and make that announcement publicly, I'll obviously describe what I have found and what I think the nation needs. But I'm going to keep this as personal and as private a process as I can." He added that he will make an announcement right before the Democratic convention, which will be held in Boston in the last week of July.
Kerry said if he were elected president, he would feel no obligation to keep people from the current administration in their positions, but said he would "reach across the aisle" to make his a more bipartisan administration.
Swiping at Bush's promises to be a uniter instead of a divider, Kerry added that he's "never, in all the years I've been in the United States Senate, seen a Congress as dysfunctional, as unproductive, as partisan and as divided as this one is."
"And I think it is partly because of the absence of presidential leadership to actually bring people together to find the common ground. I know how to do that. I've done it, and I'm going to do it as president."