WASHINGTON — The International Committee of the Red Cross this week delivered the latest in a series of critical reports on the treatment of prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials at the State Department and the Pentagon said Thursday.
The latest examination of the military’s detention practices comes as the Bush administration continues to grapple with the political and diplomatic fallout of the Iraqi prison abuse scandal, triggered by worldwide publication of photographs showing U.S. soldiers humiliating and mistreating Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad.
In their report on Guantanamo, Red Cross officials “relay some of the concerns they have and some of the issues that they wanted to raise and discuss with us,” State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher told reporters. Boucher refused to discuss details of the report.
Another State Department official, who said he had read the report, described it as “critical” of living conditions and interrogation techniques used on detainees at the base, where hundreds of suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are being held without having been charged. Most were taken into custody during the 2001 war in Afghanistan.
“Most of these issues are issues we’ve been dealing with” for some time, said the official, who asked not to be named.
The Red Cross does not publicly disclose its findings on prisoner treatment and conditions, in keeping with the Swiss-run agency’s practice of guaranteeing governments confidentiality in return for access.
The official said there appeared to be “a general lack of organization” in dealing with the American-run prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba, where thousands of people have been detained during the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
“Who is in control? Who is accountable? What are systemwide procedures? The point is, the ICRC still has unanswered questions,” the official said.
The Red Cross has been visiting detainees at Guantanamo since January 2002, when the U.S. military began transferring hundreds of prisoners to the remote prison.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that he had discussed the situation at Guantanamo in January with Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice were also present.
“There are some serious issues between us and the Red Cross about Guantanamo … [but] they have nothing to do with the kinds of abuses that we’ve been hearing about in Iraq,” Wolfowitz said. The main issue, he said, is “the impact of long-term detention.”
In the most recent report, the official said, the Red Cross addresses the applicability of the third and fourth Geneva Convention to Guantanamo detainees and discusses conditions of detention, including exposure to the elements, solitary confinement, interrogation techniques and disciplinary measures.
The U.S. refers to those held at Guantanamo as “enemy combatants” and contends they are not covered by the Geneva Convention, which details protections for prisoners of war and others.
The Red Cross inspectors found that there had been “some improvements in the conditions of detention and treatment of the prisoners,” the official said, though conditions had not changed in other cases.
Though some of the practices documented were “objectionable,” the official said, they did not appear to rise to the level of criminal mistreatment.
“It’s not as bad as the ICRC’s report on Iraq,” in which the Red Cross complained to U.S. authorities repeatedly of serious abuse of Iraqi prisoners held by the U.S. military, the official said.