The two-star Army General who led the first military investigation into human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has bluntly questioned the integrity of former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, suggesting he misled the US Congress by downplaying his own prior knowledge of what had happened.
Major General Antonio Taguba also claimed in an interview with The New Yorker magazine published yesterday that President George Bush also "had to be aware" of the atrocities despite saying at the time of the scandal that he had been out of the loop until he saw images in the US media.
The White House issued a response denying the claim, however. "The President said over three years ago that he first saw the pictures of the abuse on the television," Scott Stanzel, a spokesman, said.
In the extensive interview, Maj-Gen Taguba insisted that at the very least Mr Rumsfeld "was in denial" at a congressional hearing in May 2004, when he said he had only become aware of the extent of the abuse - and seen some of the shocking photographic evidence - one day before. The Secretary told members of Congress that the images published in the media were "not yet in the Pentagon".
Mr Rumsfeld had summoned Maj-Gen Taguba to the Pentagon on the eve of the hearing, which took place one week after first US media reports of the abuse surfaced in The New Yorker and on CBS News. Yet the General had begun his investigation several months earlier, in January 2004, and had circulated his finished report to Pentagon managers - with pictures and a video - several weeks before seeing Mr Rumsfeld. "The photographs were available to him - if he wanted to see them," Maj-Gen Taguba said.
As for the Secretary's congressional appearance, he claimed: "Rumsfeld is very perceptive and has a mind like a steel trap. There's no way he's suffering from CRS - Can't Remember Shit. He's trying to acquit himself."
Mr Bush has since conceded that the abuse at Abu Ghraib is the one thing he regrets about the war in Iraq. The photographs that became public at the time - and sparked worldwide condemnation - showed US jailers humiliating inmates who were naked, hooded, on leashes or piled into a human pyramid.
Maj-Gen Taguba said that other material not yet publicly disclosed or mentioned in subsequent trials included a video showing "a male American soldier in uniform sodomising a female detainee". The first wave of images he received also included images of sexual humiliation between a father and his son.
The General said he was ordered to limit his inquiry into the conduct of military police at the jail even as he became convinced they had a green light from higher up. "Somebody was giving them guidance but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box." He adds: "Even today ... those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable."
The General also tells the New Yorker that he became a victim of his own dedication to finding the truth when he was subsequently forced to retire early. In early 2006, he said, he received a phone call from a higher-ranking colleague telling him he was expected to retire by January this year, after more than 30 years of service. His conclusion: he was being punished for that first investigation.
"They always shoot the messenger," Maj-Gen Taguba told Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker. "To be accused of being overzealous and disloyal - that cuts deep into me. I was being ostracised for doing what I was asked to do."
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited