The U.S. military quietly tightened its detention policy to require that the International Committee of the Red Cross be notified promptly of terrorism suspects held at a special camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, a senior military officer said Saturday.
The change in policy, first reported by The New York Times on its web site Saturday, took effect in early August with no public announcement, the officer said. The officer, who has direct knowledge of the change, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The locations of the camps are classified secret.
U.S. policy on the handling of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere has been a politically explosive issue since the early years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The Justice Department is now considering whether to investigate alleged harsh interrogation practices sanctioned by the Bush administration after Sept. 11., 2001.
In the latest shift in U.S. detention policy, the military has decided that the names and identification numbers of foreign fighters and terrorist suspects held in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan that are run by U.S. special operations forces must be provided to the Red Cross within two weeks of capture, the officer said. The previous procedure was to notify the Red Cross as soon as practicable, but there was no U.S. requirement that it be done within two weeks of capture, the officer said.
The Times reported that as many as 30 to 40 foreign prisoners have been held at the camp in Iraq at any given time. It reported no estimate for the Afghan camp but said it probably was smaller.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said he could not discuss any changes of policy or specifics of handling detainees at these camps, which he said are "screening sites." He said their purpose is to temporarily hold high-value targets to remove them from the battlefield and to determine as quickly as possible if they have information of immediate value to ongoing coalition military operations.
"They are not secret prisons," Whitman said, adding that their existence is disclosed to the host nations and to the Red Cross.
Whitman said there have been instances where, out of military necessity, it has taken longer than two weeks to notify the Red Cross of the names of some detainees at these screening sites. Another official said there have been cases where it took many weeks.
The shift in policy was set in motion by Gen. David Petraeus shortly after he took over as commander last Oct. 31 at U.S. Central Command, with overall responsibility for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The policy change was made formal in the results this summer of a review conducted by Air Force Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the military officer said.
The Times reported that at the request of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Breedlove also accompanied special operations teams on some of their missions to see how they treated prisoners at the point of their capture.
In a classified report dated June 17, Breedlove generally praised the conditions at the special operations camps in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Times reported. It said he found only minor problems, including a failure to provide a Koran to each detainee.