WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted Thursday that he ordered the secret detention of at least two prisoners captured in Iraq so that they could be interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, a move that some legal experts say may have violated the Geneva Conventions.
The Geneva Conventions, which outline proper treatment of prisoners of war, forbid holding prisoners incommunicado and require that their identities be registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Rumsfeld said CIA Director George Tenet asked him to hold a member of the Islamic militant group Ansar al Islam without notifying the Red Cross.
"We were asked not to immediately register the individual and we did that," Rumsfeld said. He refused to explain why the prisoner wasn't identified to anyone for more than seven months.
He said he remembered one other similar detention and that officials were investigating to determine whether there were more.
"It is clearly conduct in violation of international law," said Deborah Pearlstein, the director of the U.S. Law and Security Program of Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Shortly before Rumsfeld's news conference, Human Rights First released a report criticizing the Bush administration for holding an unknown number of people in secret detention facilities around the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, the British possession of Diego Garcia and on U.S. warships at sea.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the department "did not talk about specific detention facilities and who is being held at which one of them."
A report written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba denounced the Pentagon's practice of holding "ghost detainees."
On Thursday, Rumsfeld insisted the prisoner he had accepted from Tenet was not a "ghost detainee" and he asserted the prisoner "has been treated humanely."
According to news reports, the prisoner was taken into custody by Kurdish fighters last summer and turned over to the CIA for questioning outside of Iraq. Tenet made his request to Rumsfeld, in writing, in October, after CIA lawyers advised that the prisoner be returned to Iraq.
Rumsfeld denied news accounts that the prisoner had gotten "lost in the system" after he was detained at Camp Cropper, at the Baghdad airport. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the CIA sought to question the prisoner in January but that military prison officials couldn't find him.
A Pentagon spokesman said the prisoner, whose name hasn't been released, is being issued an internment serial number to identify him as a security detainee. Though security detainees aren't considered to be prisoners of war, they are covered by the Geneva Conventions.
While the Geneva Conventions provide exceptions for people detained in occupied territory as spies or saboteurs, it's unclear whether that provision applies in the case of the alleged al Ansar leader.
Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, said the prisoner "was believed to be organizing attacks against the coalition."
However, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch argued that the exception to the conventions is supposed to apply "only as a temporary and exceptional measure."
"This wasn't temporary," he said.
Rumsfeld said he thought international law provided some wiggle room. "I think it's broadly understood that people don't have to be registered in the first 15 minutes," he said. "What the appropriate time is, I don't know. It may be a lot less than seven months."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.