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White House Backs Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld over Abu Ghraid prison interior
AP / CBS
President Bush has "great confidence" in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and "absolutely" wants him to stay in his post, a spokesman said Thursday, amid reports that the president had scolded the Pentagon chief over Iraq prison abuse allegations.

The White House on Wednesday put out word that Mr. Bush was unhappy that Rumsfeld didn't tell him more about the prisoner abuse investigation, but there was no evidence on Thursday that Mr. Bush is miffed, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller.

"The president met with Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday and they had a good discussion. I will leave it at that," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "The president very much appreciates the job Secretary Rumsfeld is doing and the president has great confidence in his leadership."

In interviews on Arab television Wednesday, Mr. Bush had said he retained confidence in Rumsfeld.

"I've got some confidence in the secretary of defense, and I've got confidence in the commanders on the ground in Iraq," the president told al-Hurra television.

First lady Laura Bush spoke out on the abuse allegations Thursday to CBS News Correspondent Teri Okita.

"I was disgusted and sad, really sad because that's not the picture of America," Mrs. Bush said. "That's not the story of most of the troops who are in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it's certainly not the story of our country."

The prison controversy erupted last week when aired photos depicting apparent abuse. The photos showed prisoners hooded and nude, forced into sexual positions and piled together. One was attached to wires and was allegedly told that he might be electrocuted.

The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush was upset that Rumsfeld had not told him about the photographs before they were broadcast.

"The president was not satisfied or happy about the way he was informed about the pictures, and he did talk to Secretary Rumsfeld about it," an official told The Times.

Rumsfeld himself did not know about the images of naked prisoners and gloating U.S. soldiers until the broadcast, a senior White House official said.

Members of Congress are also angry at Rumsfeld for not alerting them to the pictures. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Rumsfeld did not mention the impending abuse story when he briefed them on Capitol Hill the day of the broadcast.

"I think that's what's sparked a lot of outrage here," McCain told the CBS News Early Show. "And I think there's going to be repercussions about that, because we do have a responsibility here in Congress."

Rumsfeld was to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday.

During an interview Wednesday with the U.S.-sponsored Al-Hurra television network, Mr. Bush promised "people will be held to account" for the prisoner abuses. Whether Rumsfeld will be one of those people remained unclear.

The top Democrat in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin in the Senate called Thursday afternoon for Rumsfeld's departure, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Fuss.

In a Thursday editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called for Rumsfeld to resign over the "botched handling" of the investigation. A column in The New York Times by Thomas L. Friedman called on Mr. Bush to fire Rumsfeld "today, not tomorrow or next month."

Asked about the column, McCain told the Early Show, "I don't presume to tell the president what he should do, but it's obvious that there's a lot of explaining that Secretary Rumsfeld and others have to do."

Two Bush advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that Bush stood firmly behind Rumsfeld despite what one called the "mild rebuke." They said it was important that the Arab world and the American people know that Mr. Bush was unhappy with the way he was informed of the prisoner abuse, suggesting that leaking word of the rebuke was a political and diplomatic maneuver rather than a signal that Rumsfeld's job is in trouble.

Rumsfeld himself has deflected questions about whether he should resign. But as the defense secretary prepared for Friday's congressional hearing on the prison abuses, the chorus of criticism gathered strength.

Rumsfeld was the architect of the Iraq war — and his department largely controlled the postwar occupation. As that occupation has become plagued by wide-ranging problems, including a stubborn insurgency, the criticism of him has grown. There were complaints that reconstruction contracts were not issued competitively and that there were too few U.S. soldiers on hand to secure the country.

In an interview with CNN, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was "shocked" by the allegations of abuse. He referred to the My Lai massacre.

"In war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored," Powell said. "And what happened in this particular instance, as best I know from the pictures, was just totally despicable."

The international Red Cross said it had repeatedly asked U.S. authorities to take action over prisoner abuse and that American officials reacted positively before recent revelations about the way detainees were treated.

"The American authorities took very seriously all our recommendations," said Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking from Amman, Jordan.

ICRC officials noted that the United States had been taking steps against some of the people allegedly involved in the abuses of prisoners.

The Washington Post, in its Thursday editions, said it had obtained a new batch of more than 1,000 digital photos from Iraq. One depicted what appeared to be a female soldier holding a leash that goes around a naked man's neck at Abu Ghraib prison.

The Army has acknowledged that at least a dozen deaths at prisons and detention camps remain under scrutiny by criminal investigators. The CIA is reviewing at least two additional deaths.

The Los Angeles Times reports the CIA is probing whether its agents were involved in creating so-called "ghost detainees," who were imprisoned without documentation and possibly hidden from Red Cross officials.