Officer Says Army Tried to Curb Red Cross Visits to Prison in Iraq

May 19, 2004 | New York Times


WASHINGTON, May 18 — Army officials in Iraq responded late last year to a Red Cross report of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison by trying to curtail the international agency’s spot inspections of the prison, a senior Army officer who served in Iraq said Tuesday.

After the International Committee of the Red Cross observed abuses in one cellblock on two unannounced inspections in October and complained in writing on Nov. 6, the military responded that inspectors should make appointments before visiting the cellblock. That area was the site of the worst abuses.

The Red Cross report in November was the earliest formal evidence known to have been presented to the military’s headquarters in Baghdad before January, when photographs of the abuses came to the attention of criminal investigators and prompted a broad investigation. But the senior Army officer said the military did not start any criminal investigation before it replied to the Red Cross on Dec. 24.

The Red Cross report was made after its inspectors witnessed or heard about such practices as holding Iraqi prisoners naked in dark concrete cells for several days at a time and forcing them to wear women’s underwear on their heads while being paraded and photographed.

Until now, the Army had described its response on Dec. 24 as evidence that the military was prompt in addressing Red Cross complaints, but it has declined to release the contents of the Army document, citing the tradition of confidentiality in dealing with the international agency.

An Army spokesman declined Tuesday to characterize the letter or to discuss what it said about the Red Cross’s access to the cellblock.

In an interview, however, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, whose soldiers guarded the prisoners, said that despite the serious allegations in the Red Cross report, senior officers in Baghdad had treated it in “a light-hearted manner.”

She said that she signed the Army’s response on Dec. 24, but that it had been drafted primarily by Army lawyers who reported to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top American commander in Iraq.

General Karpinski said she did not see the Red Cross complaint until late November, and questioned how the staff judge advocate for General Sanchez, and his team of lawyers, had dealt with the matter. “It was an unusual routing because they had possession of it before I knew the letter existed,” she said of the Red Cross complaint.

“If I had been informed, and I had been drawn into this in any way, I would have said, `Hold on a second, because not in my facility you don’t,’ ” General Karpinski said of the abuses detailed in the report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which she said she did not see until at least two weeks after it was submitted. “We followed the rules, and we gave unrestricted access to the I.C.R.C., and it validated our operations, actually.”

General Karpinski, who has been disciplined for her performance as commander at the prison, would not say whether she had objected to any part of the Dec. 24 letter at the time. It was unclear whether she had felt compelled to sign a letter drafted by aides to her superiors.

For several months in Iraq, Red Cross inspectors had exercised the right to drop in on Army-run prisons without notifying prison officials in advance.

The senior Army officer questioned the rationale for the Army’s assertion in November that Red Cross visits should be scheduled.

“I know what they were communicating in that letter: They wanted the I.C.R.C. to schedule visits for those particular cellblocks, because it could interrupt any of the military intelligence,” said the officer. “The position that they were taking was that the I.C.R.C. could not have unrestricted access to those particular cellblocks.”

Other top Army officers in Washington have said the behavior described by the Red Cross in October had warranted a criminal investigation.

“I do not know if she in fact started an investigation into those, because they are serious,” Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of Army intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 11. “As soon as we hear about one of those allegations, an investigation should begin right away and we shouldn’t wait for it.”

General Alexander told senators that the abuses Red Cross inspectors witnessed “sounded the same as some of the abuses that we’re seeing” in photographs taken by military guards that are now circulating worldwide.

In an interview on Tuesday, the White House general counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, said he had not been aware that the issue of whether the Red Cross should be allowed to conduct such inspections was a point of dispute. He added, however, that he might have had “concerns” about allowing such inspections.

“Part of the concerns is whether or not there were interrogations that might be interrupted under a spot check,” Mr. Gonzales said. “Obviously, we would work with the I.C.R.C. to arrange visits” under appropriate circumstances, he said.

While he said he could not speak for everyone at the White House, he added that “I don’t recall being made aware” of the issue.

The Red Cross report and General Karpinski’s comments seem at odds with the accounts of other senior military officials.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy commander of American forces in the Middle East, told senators that the military had no inkling of the magnitude of the prisoner abuses until a soldier turned over copies of incriminating pictures to investigators on Jan. 13.

“There were reports that there was trouble in those places, but not of the character we’re talking about here,” General Smith said. He said that after General Karpinski’s Dec. 24 letter, improvements were made at the prison.

“The I.C.R.C. came back and visited 4 through 8 January and they — the indication from there was that there were improvements,” he said.

The disclosures about the Army’s response to the Red Cross complaints came as new details emerged about the death of an Iraqi prisoner in C.I.A. custody last fall.

Central Intelligence Agency officers who brought a hooded man to Abu Ghraib ordered military guards at the prison not to remove the empty sandbag that covered his head, according to the sworn testimony of a military guard. Only after the prisoner slumped over dead during questioning was the hood removed, revealing that the man had severe facial injuries.

The incident was described in testimony at a closed hearing early last month in the case of Sgt. Javal S. Davis, one of the accused prison guards. The statements were made by two members of Sergeant Davis’s unit, Specialists Bruce Brown and Jason A. Kenner. Their testimony appears to provide fresh clues to the mysterious death of a man identified by the American authorities only by his last name, Jamadi.

Mr. Jamadi is believed to be the man whose body was packed in ice and photographed at Abu Ghraib. The picture, among a group that depicted degrading treatment of detainees, has circulated widely on computer networks as one of most graphic images in the prisoner abuse scandal.

Neither Specialist Brown nor Specialist Kenner identified Mr. Jamadi by name, but Mr. Jamadi appears to be the man they described because C.I.A. officials have said he is the only person who died during an interrogation carried out by an agency employee. Both men said that the detainee had been brought to Abu Ghraib by an “O.G.A.,” or other government agency, which usually referred to the C.I.A. or another intelligence agency.

The two witnesses’ statements are significant because the C.I.A.’s inspector general is investigating the death of Mr. Jamadi, along with two other deaths in which C.I.A. or contract workers for the agency were involved. One was in western Iraq in November 2003, the other in Afghanistan in June 2003. The Justice Department is also examining the three deaths to decide whether to open a criminal investigation into the matter.

A senior intelligence official said that Mr. Jamadi was hooded when he was picked up at the Baghdad airport after being captured earlier in the day by Navy Seals and that he had never been touched by C.I.A. interrogators or translators. A spokesman for the Seals has said the detainee had not been mistreated by its personnel. The witness accounts were first reported Tuesday by The Los Angeles Times.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon formally adopted regulations for dealing with the hardest-core detainees at the prison at Guant?namo Bay, Cuba, who might be held for years, because they are judged to remain a threat to United States forces. The regulations provide for a quasi-parole board of three military officers who would conduct an annual review to determine if the detainees have ceased to be a threat and may be released.

The prisoners could have their home governments and family members take part in the review. Officials said, however, that the proceedings would be closed to the public because they would involve discussion of classified issues.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld met for about three hours behind closed doors with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss a range of Iraq issues, but Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers had agreed to say nothing after the session, and Mr. Rumsfeld did not speak publicly.

On Wednesday, the first court-martial of a soldier accused of abusing Iraqi detainees, Specialist Jeremy C. Sivits of the Army, opens in Baghdad. On Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the American occupation authorities had denied Iraqi and international human rights groups requests permission to attend the trial.

Reporting for this article was contributed by David E. Sanger, David Johnston, Carl Hulse and Neil A. Lewis.

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