Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, have publicly defended a senior officer who has described the war on terrorism as a religious clash.

Lieutenant General William Boykin is one of the Pentagon's most senior intelligence officials, a combat veteran with experience in covert operations who is now involved in the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

News reports say he is also an outspoken evangelical Christian who has appeared before religious groups in uniform and said radical Muslims hate the United States because it is a Christian nation.

Such remarks appear to conflict with the Bush administration's repeated insistence that the war on terrorism is not a war against Islam.

Asked about General's Boykin's comments Thursday, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said he was not familiar with them. But he went on to describe the general as an officer with an outstanding record and indicated he was entitled to his opinions.

"There are a lot of things that are said by people in the military, or civilian life, or in the Congress, or in the executive branch that are their views. And that's the way we live," he said. "We're a free people. And that's the wonderful thing about our country. And I think that for anyone to run around and think that that can be managed and controlled is probably wrong."

For his part, General Myers told reporters there was what he termed a "very wide gray area" of what the rules permit. He said he did not think General Boykin violated any. "All different kinds of shades of gray here. I don't - at first blush, it doesn't look like any rules were broken," he said.

General Myers added he has appeared and spoken at public functions of a religious nature.

Neither he nor Defense Secretary Rumsfeld would say whether they intend to investigate General Boykin's comments.