Pentagon Was Blindsided by Bush Pledge to Raze Prison
WASHINGTON, May 26 — On Monday night, President Bush made the dramatic announcement that the United States would demolish Abu Ghraib prison and build a modern maximum-security center in Baghdad to replace it. But on Wednesday, Pentagon officials said the president's words had taken them by surprise, and they scrambled without success to come up with details of the plan.
"This office was not aware of any plans to raze Abu Ghraib or build another prison," said a Pentagon spokesman who insisted that he not be identified because he did not want to be seen as contradicting the president.
A senior Pentagon official said that any plans would have to be discussed with a new Iraqi government, as Mr. Bush himself stipulated in his announcement, and that in any case razing the prison could not happen quickly.
"It's just an idea the president came up with," the official said. "The Iraqis could decide they don't want to tear it down. It's not ours to tear down. It will be some time before I can give you the kind of details you want."
A White House official said Wednesday that it had been Mr. Bush's idea to insert the prison announcement into his speech Monday, at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where he outlined his strategy for handing over power to a new Iraqi government by June 30. The official said Mr. Bush discussed the idea last week with his war cabinet and with L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator in Iraq.
Mr. Bremer, the White House official said, was asked to look into the viability of building a new prison and then razing Abu Ghraib, which Pentagon officials had said until then they would not tear down. Mr. Bremer, the White House official said, consulted with Iraqis and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who is in charge of detention operations in Iraq. Mr. Bremer worked on the idea over the weekend and recommended it as a good plan, the official said.
The prison announcement was one of the few pieces of new information in Mr. Bush's speech, which focused on walking Americans through a five-step plan, all pre-existing American policy, that the president said would move Iraqis toward sovereignty.
It was toward the end of the speech that Mr. Bush suddenly pledged that the United States would pay to build a new prison in Baghdad, relocate Abu Ghraib detainees there and then, if the new Iraqi government agreed, demolish what has become a notorious symbol of abuse by both Saddam Hussein and American soldiers.
"Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture," Mr. Bush said. "That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values." A new Iraq, Mr. Bush said, will need "a humane, well-supervised prison system."
Mr. Bush's announcement also surprised Capitol Hill, including the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which oversees reconstruction spending in Iraq.
"None of the groundwork was done for something like this to be more than a public relations announcement," said Tim Rieser, a senior Democratic aide to the subcommittee. "And now we're going to have to figure it out after the fact." White House officials, Mr. Rieser said, "routinely treat Congress as their personal A.T.M. machine."
Last fall, the administration asked Congress for $400 million to build two maximum-security prisons in Iraq, but Congress, citing what it described as excessive estimates, reduced that to $100 million for one prison, in Nasiriya. Although the administration has money for another prison — Congress appropriated $18 billion last fall for Iraqi reconstruction, with much not yet spent — officials would have to get lawmakers' approval for it
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