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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Rumsfeld, Tenet Linked to Secret Detention of a Prisoner

June 17, 2004|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in October ordered a suspected terrorist captured in Iraq to be held in secret, a Pentagon official said Wednesday in what administration officials acknowledged was one of two violations of international law.

The unidentified detainee, believed to be a leader of the outlawed Ansar al Islam group, was held without being given a prisoner number, and the International Committee of the Red Cross was not told about him, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

The Pentagon acted at the request of CIA Director George J. Tenet, Whitman said. A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged Tenet's role.

The Los Angeles Times reported May 5 that the CIA may have had a role in hiding "ghost detainees" -- prisoners for whom there was no paperwork and who were being held without charges.

This case appears to be the first involving Rumsfeld and Tenet directly.

The secret detention of the prisoner was first reported in the June 21 issue of U.S. News & World Report, and Rumsfeld's involvement was reported Wednesday by NBC News.

CIA officials captured the man in July and spirited him out of Iraq. He was returned in October after the Justice Department issued a legal opinion stating that the international law embodied in the Geneva Convention forbade removing a prisoner of war from the nation in which he was captured, U.S. and intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tenet then asked Rumsfeld to take the prisoner into U.S. military custody at an undisclosed location, Pentagon spokesman Whitman said. He was kept in solitary confinement, away from other prisoners.

At Tenet's request, Rumsfeld wrote a memo ordering Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq, not to assign the detainee a serial number and added words to the effect, an unidentified U.S. official said, of "do not acknowledge that we are detaining him to any international organization" -- an apparent reference to the Red Cross.

Sanchez, head of Joint Task Force 7, the military command in Baghdad directing the war, complied with Rumsfeld's order "in violation of international law," the official added.

"This is a direct, clear order to not acknowledge him," the official said. "And then, despite numerous attempts by JTF7 through the chain of command, he goes unacknowledged for eight months."

Writing in the conclusion of his report on his lengthy investigation in February of prisoner abuse, Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba called efforts to hide prisoners from the Red Cross "deceptive" and a "violation of international law." Military officials in Baghdad asked Pentagon lawyers on at least two occasions how to handle the detainee and received no answer, the U.S. official said.

The issue finally worked its way back up the chain of command last month, Whitman said. The detainee will be given a serial number, will become available to the Red Cross and will be kept among other prisoners "if appropriate," Whitman said.

The intelligence official emphasized that the man was considered an immediate threat to the security of soldiers and civilians. "This was not some random Iraqi," the official said. "This was an individual who was a member of Ansar al Islam and has admitted that he was planning and coordinating attacks against U.S. and coalition officials inside Iraq and also outside of Iraq. This was an admitted terrorist who was committed to killing Americans and coalition forces."

Whitman said detainees may be held for short periods without the Red Cross or other organizations being notified, but intelligence and administration officials acknowledge that an eight-month period would violate the Geneva Convention.

"This is something that should have been determined much quicker than it was," a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity. "People in the building didn't get to the right level or the right people that would get it resolved."

The Bush administration has tied Ansar al Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group, to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, describing it as among the most dangerous insurgent groups operating in Iraq.

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