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Signature on death letters fuels Rumsfeld criticism

Hagel: Signing letters to next of kin is 'least we could expect'

Donald H. Rumsfeld

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld faced renewed criticism Sunday from lawmakers, including one prominent Republican, after he said he has not personally signed letters sent to family members of troops killed in action.

Rumsfeld made the acknowledgment in a statement to military newspaper Stars and Stripes, saying that he would begin signing such letters.

Stars and Stripes had reported that Rumsfeld's letters carried a mechanical reproduction of his signature, which angered some military families.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a leading GOP critic of Rumsfeld, called the news about the letters "astounding," and noted that President Bush signs each of his letters to military families.

"I think it's very reflective of how out of touch this crowd is," the Nebraskan said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "My goodness, that's the least that we could expect of the secretary of defense."

But Bush chief of staff Andrew Card said Rumsfeld enjoys the president's confidence, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Rumsfeld's dismissal would be "a gift to the jihadists and the insurgents" in Iraq.

"Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job, and the president has great confidence in him," Card said on ABC's "This Week."

"He is helping to lead our troops as they meet an awesome responsibility to protect us and to bring freedom to others. He's also transforming the military. And any time you do that, there are controversies."

More than 1,300 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and more than 1,000 of those have been killed in combat. In fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere, more than 60 have been killed in hostile action.

In his statement published Friday, Rumsfeld said he "wrote and approved the now more than 1,000 letters sent to family members and next of kin of each of the servicemen and women killed in military action.

"While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter."

Charges of failed leadership

But his critics characterized the flap as another failure of Rumsfeld's leadership.

Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said some fellow Republicans have argued that the dispute over Rumsfeld is a matter of style over substance.

"I would suggest that those who believe that, in my party and elsewhere, they better wake up and smell the coffee," he said.

"We're isolating ourselves in the world ... And I think that the leadership of the Pentagon has done that in many ways to us," Hagel said. "This issue of a secretary of defense not personally signing these letters is just astounding."

And Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, told CBS he was "shocked."

"We ask these young men and women to sacrifice themselves, to give their lives," said Reed, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I believe it's part of that leadership of that department that the secretary of defense would personally write these letters, personally sign them at least."

Some lawmakers have complained that Rumsfeld failed to adequately plan and equip troops for the resistance in Iraq. Those complaints increased this month when a soldier asked Rumsfeld directly at a town hall meeting in Kuwait why some troops were not provided with armor for vehicles. (Full story)

Rumsfeld said armor was being produced as quickly as "humanly possible" -- which turned out not to be true. Some lawmakers said they have long been telling the White House that manufacturers were not working at capacity and were offering to make more.

Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that he was among them.

Although Rumsfeld has agreed to sign the letters, Bayh said, "What's most important here is that we do what it takes to minimize the number of letters that have to be sent."

He accused the administration of failing to recognize its errors.

"We have to learn from these mistakes so that we do better to minimize the number of casualties to win this thing," Bayh said. "It's the lack of any introspection that I find to be very troubling."

Polarizing figure

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has said he has no confidence in the defense secretary, but Bush has said he wants Rumsfeld to stay. (Full story)

Republican sources told CNN before the presidential election last month that some top GOP figures were holding off on criticizing the Bush administration until after the vote -- but would then give the president an earful.

Still, some Republicans remain supportive of the secretary. Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Sunday that Rumsfeld is learning from the criticism.

"To go through another secretary of defense set of hearings and nominations and all the turmoil of this would be very destructive in my judgment to the momentum of what we need to do," the Indiana Republican said.

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