WASHINGTON - It was standard operating procedure for the Army to hold some detainees in secret in Afghanistan for up to several months without reporting them to the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to military officers familiar with the policy.
A similar practice was later used at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, where the physical and sexual abuse of detainees prompted the Department of Defense to launch several sweeping investigations of its detention policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, three recently completed Pentagon investigations didn't examine the Army's practice of holding secret detainees, now known as "ghost detainees," and whether it may have contributed to abuse.
One of those reports was compiled by Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, who's currently the inspector general of the Army. He commanded ground forces in Afghanistan at the time the policy was adopted, but didn't mention the policy when he told the Senate Armed Service Committee in July that his review had found no evidence of ghost detainees.
Mikolashek declined through a spokesman to answer questions about the policy or his July testimony. Three other generals who served in Afghanistan and would've been responsible for approving the extended detention of unregistered detainees either declined to be interviewed or didn't respond to requests.
"Secret detention is the gateway to torture," charged Reed Brody, the legal counsel of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that's documented mistreatment at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. "History shows that when people are taken off the books, that is when they are most vulnerable to all kinds of abuse."
Army and Department of Defense spokesmen declined to comment on the ghost detainee policy or acknowledge its existence.
The policy was described to Knight Ridder in varying levels of detail by three military officers who all spoke on the condition of anonymity. A former interrogator also described the policy in a recently published book.
According to their accounts, the policy was developed following the rout of the Taliban and after coalition forces installed their headquarters at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to fight the remnants of the Taliban and to pursue Osama bin Laden. The policy was written in June 2002.
Six months later, two detainees were killed at Bagram. Neither of the detainees appeared to have been given a serial number, making it impossible for the International Committee of the Red Cross to know they existed and request an interview with them.
One died after he was hung by his arms from the ceiling for days. Another was beaten and died of associated injuries. The Army said it's preparing to identify a group of military intelligence officers and military police officers responsible for the abuse.
Members of the same military intelligence unit that are implicated in the deaths and abuse at Bagram were later involved in abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to a report first published by Knight Ridder and subsequently confirmed by two major investigations by the Army and the Department of Defense.
Congressional hearings on detainee policies and abuse continue this week.
In July, Mikolashek, who's now the Army's inspector general, was called before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify about an extensive review he conducted of detainee operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the United States in response to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked about a March investigation led by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that found "on at least one occasion" soldiers had moved six to eight detainees around the Iraqi prison in an attempt to hide them from the Red Cross.
"Did you examine this issue?" Reed asked.
"During the conduct of our inspection, we found no evidence of the so-called ghost detainees," Mikolashek said.
"But there is evidence that they did exist," countered Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger. "There is evidence that that is contradictory to our obligations under the Geneva Conventions."
The military officers who spoke with Knight Ridder said the Army policy at Bagram Air Base placed every detainee who was brought into the facility in temporary limbo for up to two weeks. At least half a dozen detainees were held longer than two weeks, they said.
The two-week delay gave interrogators time to screen detainees captured by the anti-Taliban northern alliance or coalition forces for intelligence value before releasing their names to the ICRC.
Though the International Committee of the Red Cross promised confidentiality, the Army was afraid the organization would leak vital intelligence to the enemy. If coalition forces captured an enemy fighter with information about the location or movements of al-Qaida or Taliban leaders, keeping the fighter's status as a detainee secret was seen as crucial to the success of a raid.
The officers emphasized that the delay also served a humanitarian goal, because detainees who had no intelligence value could be released without going through procedures that sometimes involved approval from Mikolashek's headquarters in Kuwait or from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's office.
By June the process had been formalized in a written SOP, or standard operating procedure. For the first two weeks, detainees were classified as "Persons under U.S. control" and given a temporary internee number beginning with "T."
"The whole idea was to create a sort of limbo status, a bureaucratic blank spot where prisoners could reside temporarily without entering any official database or numbering system," a senior interrogator at Bagram who goes by the pseudonym "Chris Mackey" wrote in "The Interrogators," a book about his experience serving in Afghanistan in late 2001 and 2002.
If a detainee had no apparent intelligence value, he was released. Detainees who had some intelligence value were given an Internee Serial Number, or ISN, and logged into the official database. If they appeared to have high intelligence value, they were classified as PUC HVTs, or "persons under U.S. control (who are) high value targets" and held in isolation for up to three months while questioning continued.
The International Committee of the Red Cross wasn't allowed to interview these detainees.
The officers said they knew of about eight cases of extended detention in Afghanistan and that each was approved by a commanding general.
"In most cases the reasons for doing it were more practical than anyone could imagine," one officer said. For example, the delay could be useful if a "high value target" spoke a dialect that was difficult to understand or he shared the same name as a suspected terrorist and had a story that was difficult to confirm.
"It wasn't as if we were trying to hide the detainees as if they didn't exist," the officer said. "They were reported at all times to the chain of command."
The officers said they knew of no detainees who were abused and that every effort was made to cooperate with the ICRC, including allowing ICRC officials to see detainees but not talk to them.
The ICRC denied agreeing to a "view only" policy in Afghanistan and said its officials repeatedly asked to speak to everyone held in relationship to the conflict.
"In some parts of the world, the ICRC's ability to see and talk to every detainee quite literally serves as a life insurance policy: If we were not there to do our work, there is a risk that people would simply disappear," said Amanda Williamson, a Washington-based spokeswoman.
The Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of prisoners of war, give the ICRC access to "all premises" or "all places" occupied by prisoners of war and other detainees as well as the right to interview them without witnesses.
Because the Red Cross promises cooperating governments full confidentiality, Red Cross spokesmen couldn't address the specific issue of whether the organization had protested the ghost detainee policy at Bagram.
But a report written by two Army generals and released last month shows the Red Cross was vocal about a similar policy in Iraq that barred it from speaking to prisoners at Abu Ghraib by citing a narrow exemption to the Fourth Geneva Convention known as Article 143. The exemption says Red Cross visits can be prohibited only "for reasons of imperative military necessity, and then only for an exceptional and temporary measure."
According to an investigation conducted by Maj. Gen. George Fay and Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones, Article 143 was cited eight times during an ICRC visit in January 2004 and nine times during a visit in March 2004.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, an Army spokesman for detainee operations in Iraq, said Article 143 was no longer being used to prevent the ICRC from talking with detainees. He said everyone brought to Abu Ghraib is now properly registered.
The ICRC challenged the use of Article 143 in the case of a Syrian detainee who had been interrogated for more than four months.
Viewed as a "special project," the detainee, who was a suspected member of al-Qaida, was kept in a totally dark cell about 2 meters long and 1 meter wide and without a window, latrine, water tap or bedding. A picture of "Gollum," the character from the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, was posted on the door of his cell.
Fay-Jones investigators later uncovered a photograph showing the Syrian detainee kneeling on the floor, with his hands bound behind his back, being confronted by a black military dog.
Col. David Howlett, the top military lawyer for Gen. Paul Kern, who oversaw the investigation conducted by Fay and Jones, said not all the Article 143 detainees were ghost detainees, because some of the detainees who weren't permitted to talk to the ICRC were properly registered.
The Fay-Jones investigation found evidence of eight ghost detainees. One, Manadel al Jamadi, died from injuries he received during his capture while he was being interrogated in a shower stall at Abu Ghraib. It wasn't clear whether the Syrian detainee was also a "ghost."
The Fay-Jones report recommended further investigation of ghost detainees by the inspectors general of the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, which also held unregistered prisoners.
© 2004 Knight Ridder Newspapers