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Kerry faults Bush, Rumsfeld leadership in Iraq prison scandal

PHILADELPHIA -- John F. Kerry yesterday harked back to his service in the Vietnam War to decry the abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, fault President Bush for failing to punish the wrongdoers, and renew his call for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign because of the problems under his command.

"For any person who has ever served in the military, we all know what 'chain of command' means, we know what accountability and responsibility means, and it's not just the little person at the bottom who ought to pay the price of responsibility," the Democratic presidential nominee said as he opened a town hall meeting intended to focus on job creation and economic issues. "Harry Truman had the sign on the desk [in the Oval Office] and it said, 'The buck stops here.' The buck doesn't stop at the Pentagon."

Kerry's criticism was fueled by two new reports, the first of which faulted members of the administration for creating the environment in which prisoners were allegedly tortured and sexually humiliated. Written by a four-member panel headed by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger, the report labeled the abuses "acts of brutality and purposeless sadism" and also said, "The abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow standards. . . . There is both institution and personal responsibility at higher levels."

The review panel said Rumsfeld and his top military advisers were partly to blame for the abuse, both for failing to set clear standards for prisoner interrogation and for failing to plan for a postwar environment in which the prison guards became overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Nonetheless, all four members of the panel -- who were appointed by Rumsfeld -- expressly stated he should not resign, with Schlesinger telling reporters at a news conference that Rumsfeld's resignation "would be a boon for all of America's enemies."

Another report, written by Army Major General George R. Fay, was released yesterday and recommended punishment beyond the criminal charges lodged against seven military police troops.

Kerry called on Bush to appoint another commission "that evaluates thoroughly all of the chain of abuses that took place, and why they took place, including the civilian side, the legal interpretations, the memoranda that were put out with respect to who was interpreting which law which way, who made what decisions about Geneva Conventions.

"That's leadership, and that's what ought to happen."

The Bush campaign dismissed the criticism as well as Kerry's call for another investigative panel.

"John Kerry demonstrated his willingness to exploit the war on terror for political purposes when he voted against funds for our troops during the Democratic primaries," campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said. "He demonstrated it when he spoke in favor of troop redeployment and then attacked the president for announcing troop deployment two years later. He demonstrated it by taking both sides on the war."

During the town hall meeting, Kerry decried what he said was the administration's "failed economic policy" and announced that his plan had won the endorsement of 10 economists who are Nobel Prize recipients. The Massachusetts senator has proposed stimulating the economy with a massive public works program, investment in scientific research, and by repealing Bush administration tax cuts received by those earning more than $200,000 annually. Instead, Kerry would use the tax money to support a national health care program, provide tuition support, and fund local education under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

He also criticized the administration, saying it preferred to focus on divisive issues, exemplifying "these narrow, little, divide-you values," and took aim at Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for attending campaign events in which attendees were required to sign loyalty oaths before being admitted. "We want to talk to America, and we want to take what comes with it," Kerry said, referring to himself and his running mate, Senator John Edwards.

One questioner, Larry Healy of Springfield, Pa., a member of United Food Commercial Workers No. 56, mentioned attacks that have been waged on Kerry's military record by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

In a swipe at the decisions on Vietnam War service made by Bush and Cheney, Healy said, "I wanted to thank you for when you got your application, you checked 'yes' that you would serve in combat, in the zone. And I want to thank you for your leadership in choosing to command a swift boat, rather than saying, 'I had more important things to do' and 'I want five deferments.' "

Kerry choked up as he said, "That means all the world to me."

Another questioner presented Kerry with a pair of boxing gloves in what he said was recognition of the senator's fight for the middle class. The man, Bernie A. Strain Jr., then asked Kerry what he should tell his son -- who volunteered for the Air Force and now serves in Iraq -- about why the United States is in the country.

"You tell your son that he's doing a great patriotic service to his nation, that he is serving the ultimate cause of trying to help America fight terror and to be able to stand up for democracy," Kerry replied. Nonetheless, the senator blasted what he said was the administration's "rush to war" and failure to adequately plan for the postcombat insurgency.

Afterward, Kerry flew to Green Bay, Wis., for a "front-porch visit," before going to Minneapolis for another town hall meeting today.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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