U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Saturday that he wants American commanders in Afghanistan to expedite their investigation of allegations that U.S. soldiers burned the remains of Taliban fighters they had killed and then used the scene for propaganda purposes.
Investigators should proceed with a "sense of urgency," Rumsfeld said, in light of potential damage to U.S. interests from a backlash in the Muslim world, which has expressed outrage at the allegations.
In his first public comments about the matter, Rumsfeld told reporters who flew with him from Mongolia that Defense Department lawyers had advised him to be careful what he says because, as defense secretary, his remarks about the specifics of the case could complicate the proceedings.
Rumsfeld made clear, however, that he is worried by publicity about the allegations, whatever their merit.
"The reality is that charges of that type are harmful," he said. "They don't represent the overwhelmingly positive behavior of the men and women in uniform who do such a wonderful job. It's always disappointing when there are charges like that. It's particularly disappointing when they're true. That needs to be determined, but one hates to see the adverse effect of it, if it is true.
"We also recognize the damage that can be done by the allegations alone, if they're not true, or if there's some explanation of some sort. But, that's the world we live in," Rumsfeld added.
"My hope is that the people, commands, that are responsible for their troops will accelerate the process ... because in the world we're living in, if you have to live with months and months of damage because of an unverified — an as-yet-validated — allegation, you suffer a great deal of damage," he said.
The defense secretary cited as an example the deadly riots in Afghanistan this year that some people linked to anger over alleged mishandling of the Quran by U.S. military personnel at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center for suspected terrorists.
Rumsfeld emphasized the importance of preserving the legal rights of any soldiers who might face charges.
"We've got to find a way to have the military justice system operate at a pace that reflects the world of the 21st century with 24-hour news and a desire to report things that are dramatic and negative, and to repeat them over and over again until for some reason they are disproved or they're concluded, and the longer that period is the more harmful it is for our country," Rumsfeld said.
He said he had "talked to people and explained what the effect is and that there has to be a way for them to, not to abbreviate the process, but to put a sense of urgency on it that it merits, given the damage that's done during periods of uncertainty."
He did not say to whom he talked about this.
Rumsfeld was in the Lithuanian capital to attend NATO defense ministers meetings beginning Sunday.