NBC News and news services
updated 6/10/2004 10:59:59 AM ET 2004-06-10T14:59:59

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may move to extend the investigation of abuses of Iraqi prisoners to include top military ranks, defense officials said Thursday.

Rumsfeld is considering a request by the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East to replace a two-star Army general investigating the prisoner abuse scandal.

The move, sought this week by Army Gen. John Abizaid, would replace Maj. Gen. George Fay with a more senior general and open the way for questioning of top U.S. officers to help determine who is responsible for the scandal.

Under Army regulations, Fay, whose report was expected this month, is prohibited from questioning officers above his rank. The defense officials, who asked not to be identified, said the report could be delayed for a month if Rumsfeld gives his approval as expected.

Investigations under way in Iraq, Afghanistan
In a major scandal that has sparked outrage in the Arab and Muslim world, U.S. military police have been accused of hooding, stripping naked and sexually humiliating prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Several investigations are under way and have extended to other jails in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The requested change in investigation leadership was first reported Thursday by the New York Times and Washington Post.

Fay has been investigating not only the abuse at Abu Ghraib by military police, but to what extent U.S. military intelligence troops might have been involved in either ordering the abuse or taking part. Military police, one of whom has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to a year in prison, said they were obeying orders.

The request by Abizaid comes amid growing criticism from some members of the U.S. Congress and grumbling by military officers that the investigation of Abu Ghraib could end up punishing only a handful of enlisted soldiers and leaving senior officers unaccountable.

Pentagon officials confirmed a detail contained in the New York Times report: that three-star Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq, had taken the unusual step of asking to be removed as the reviewing authority for Fay’s report and requesting that higher-ranking officers be appointed to conduct and review the investigation.

Sanchez denies knowledge of abuse
Sanchez, who last year ordered military intelligence to take control of Abu Ghraib, has denied any knowledge of the abuse before the scandal broke early this year.

Sanchez also told Congress in sworn testimony that his order regarding military intelligence was only to assure security at the prison and not to insert military police into the role of conducting interrogations or “softening” prisoners for questioning.

Also on Thursday, the Pentagon announced that Rumsfeld has issued new procedures for how the Department of Defense handles deaths of those in  U.S. military custody in an effort to improve the way each death is investigated and reported up the chain of command.

Under the new rules, when a death occurs, the commander of the detention facility is required to immediately report the death to the responsible Army, Navy, or Air Force investigative agency. That agency will then notify the Armed Forces medical examiner, who will determine whether an autopsy will be performed.

In addition, the regional combatant commander will notify the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in turn will notify the Secretary of Defense of any detainee death.

In a statement, the Pentagon says the new guidelines will "ensure that the department can establish and record an official cause and manner of death in all cases involving detainees and others in U.S. custody."

Previously, autopsies were performed somewhat haphazardly with no clear procedures for when to conduct the exam at all.

NBC News producer Scott Foster and Reuters news service contributed to this report.

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