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News Transcript

Presenter: Senior Defense Official
Thursday, June 24, 2004 4:33 p.m. EDT

International Committee of the Red Cross Interaction with Department of Defense on Detainees

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Hello. As you know, officials of the Department of Defense today briefed members of the Armed Services Committees of the Congress on the interactions between the Department of Defense and the International Committee of the Red Cross -- the ICRC. This is in response to the secretary's desire to provide information to Congress that is relevant to the Congress's oversight responsibilities, and in response to a number of queries from congressional committees.

My purpose in this brief is to give you background information about the role of the ICRC, how DOD interacts with ICRC, and to describe the confidential aspect of the communications between ICRC and detaining powers, which is quite significant and quite important.

As you may know, ICRC has been visiting detainees in connection with armed conflict since 1915. The objectives of the visits are strictly humanitarian. They ensure compliance with internationally recognized standards in places of detention, whether it's for enemy prisoners of war, or whether it's for civilian internees in situations of armed conflict. They monitor basic issues: Is there enough food? Is the food adequate? Are the hygienic facilities proper? Is there access to open air? Is there possibility for exercise for the detained population? Are the detainees being treated well? Not just being -- are they being tortured or not being tortured; are they generally being treated well? Is their mental state tolerable under the conditions, of course, of detention?

They have a very important function of registering detainees, and this is -- if you remember conflicts more than 100 years ago, people went to war and they disappeared. They never came back. Nobody knew where they went. Well, one of the important things about the ICRC's mission is to make sure that everyone is accounted for. So they maintain a very accurate register of who is detained and where they are detained and what happens to that person along the detention process.

They also meet with the detaining authorities at the beginning and at the end of each one of their visits and cover all of the various aspects of activities that they have observed. They make recommendations. They make suggestions. They point out things that are not working well. They also point out things that are working well.

If you think about it, there is no other entity that has this kind of intrusive, really intrusive access into a sovereign's military operations during an armed conflict. There is no other entity that has that kind of access but ICRC, and that's quite a remarkable role, and it's a remarkable role to have maintained for almost 100 years, if not more.

They have -- those who are familiar with some of the ICRC's working practices, they have established for themselves working procedures at places of detention. That helps them regularize what they do, how they do it, and it also helps the detaining authorities know what to expect and know what to look for. The essential elements of their -- what they call their modalities, their working procedures at places of detentions, to have private meetings with detainees so that they can assess for themselves how the detainee is doing and to facilitate messages between the detainee and his or her family.

They work on a strictly confidential basis. Their written reports and finding on -- findings at places of detention are labeled confidential, and they're confidential to the detaining authorities. It is a tenet in ICRC's practice that under no circumstances will they comment publicly on the treatment of detainees or the conditions of detention, and this is -- this is a very fundamental aspect of their practice. The delegates, as the ICRC representatives call themselves, the delegates discuss findings directly with the detaining authorities. They submit their recommendations to the detaining authorities -- that would be the commander of the detention facility, not even talking about higher up the chain, necessarily. But the commander of that detention facility gets a report at the end of an ICRC visit. They discuss the findings directly with them, and they encourage those who operate the detention facilities to take measures to address particular problems that ICRC delegates see, all from a humanitarian standpoint.

In the U.S. government there are hundreds and thousands of interactions with ICRC. Of course, for the United States, the State Department has the lead in relations with ICRC as it has with foreign nations, international organizations, and similar entities. So when it comes to diplomatic communications, there is a fair amount of interaction between State and ICRC, but there is also considerable and regular interaction between State and DOD and ICRC representatives on a very broad range of humanitarian issues. Detention is really, although it's taken a great deal of attention in recent months, in recent years, detention is a very small sliver of this large set of interactions.

We work -- we as the government work with ICRC on a very broad range of humanitarian assistance issues. If there is famine or if there is conflict, a conflict in which the United States may not be a party, we may be helping ICRC with access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance or coordinating with them as a government on how they can reach people in need. We work with them in the development, in the progressive development of the law of armed conflict, in the development of treaties on conventional weapons, and in a broad range of other areas. So again, detention is something that, for DOD, is very important. But even for DOD it's a very small set of the broad range of activities that we have with ICRC.

How these interactions take place. They come at every level. They occur on the ground when it comes to detention facilities. The most valuable interactions are ICRC delegates on the ground talking with our detention officials, our detention personnel who are running detention facilities, and discussing what they see, what problems need to be addressed, what can be improved, and what's working well.

They also take place at higher level headquarters. They can take place at U.S. Embassy Kabul and U.S. Embassy Baghdad, or they can also take place -- and they do on a regular basis -- here at the Pentagon with the heads of delegation of the ICRC for the North American delegation. We, officials at DOD and officials at the State Department, meet with ICRC leadership in Geneva at their headquarters, or their headquarters meet with our senior officials here. On a regular basis, I think at least annually, the president of the ICRC comes to Washington and meets with Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, Dr. Rice, and to cover a broad range of ICRC activities as well.

In addition to the kinds of meetings and the constant conversations, there are periodic reports that ICRC prepares on places of detention. And those are the reports that are handed to the detention authorities to illustrate what the findings are and to make recommendations.

The range of interactions, as I said, is pretty broad. Not all communications require an answer. And I think some of the queries and some of the issues that have been raised in recent weeks about follow- up on ICRC reports and what was the answer, the answer -- when the ICRC prepares and delivers a report on a detention facility operated, for example, by DOD, they don't expect a written answer. What they expect is that someone will -- that the detaining authorities will take on board their recommendations and their input and they'll do something about it, whatever is appropriate.

They don't expect a reply in writing, but they expect to see that their comments and their observations have been noted in some fashion, and where there is something that needs to be addressed, it's been addressed. How do they follow up? The next time they come visit, they will look for whatever was the problem -- were there problems with running water, enough running water, or enough food, or enough Korans for some of the detainees, or Korans in a language that a detainee understands. Do we have them now? If we don't have them now, is there a problem? How can we solve that problem?

That's how we address the issues. And if you think about it, if the focus of ICRC is humanitarian, make sure the detainee is being treated well, the most effective way to get a result fast, to get it implemented, is to work at the ground level and to get the changes made and the corrections made on the ground as quickly as possible, having a good and cooperative working relationship. When that doesn't work, it escalates, like it does in every other bureaucracy. If there is no -- if there is inadequate response at the working level on the ground, ICRC will start engaging more senior officials of the leadership and of the chain of command. Ultimately, ICRC can, and has in its history, elevated an issue to its headquarters in Geneva, so that headquarters personnel can address the detaining authorities in another government about something that's particularly significant.

I have to say that federal agencies work that way, too. (Laughs.) When we fail to reach agreement at the working level, we keep escalating. This is -- this is not unusual. But the preference really is to just get it fixed and focus on what people need on the ground level.

Within DOD it's clear that the flow of information has not worked well, has not worked perfectly. General Abizaid has mentioned it, as have many other senior DOD officials, and we're working to improve that. While it does make perfect sense that reports about conditions of detention go to the detaining authority, sometimes it's important that a collection of reports, a pattern of issues that perhaps require greater level of attention be made known to more senior officials. And the secretary has taken that on board as a serious issue to address, and I -- I think it's going to be very comprehensively addressed very soon. The idea is to make sure that we have a system in the department that will permit issues that remain unresolved or that are significant to be elevated to senior leadership so that we make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. That's a reasonable solution.

We do, at the OSD level, have copies of periodic reports that ICRC provides to detaining authorities, but we don't have a comprehensive compilation. We're still pulling together from the field even the most cursory of reports, or the shortage reports.

We can improve the flow of information. But I think the key aspect of this relationship that we would want to impress upon you today is how significant the issue of confidentiality is for ICRC. As I said, ICRC provides the reports on a confidential basis to the detaining authorities. And they really mean The Detaining Authorities out there in the field. They don't mean headquarters.

This is a key aspect of how they work that ensures that they can have access to places of detention worldwide. If detaining authorities know that whatever ICRC observes in their military operations and their detaining facilities will be disclosed publicly, they may be reluctant to have ICRC have this kind of very close and personal access to sensitive facilities. So confidentiality is key, and ICRC's been very good about maintaining that confidentiality through the years. It's central to their ability to see prisoners, which means it's central to their ability to make sure that those who are in detention are being treated properly.

This is why we are treating these reports -- among other reasons, but the central reason why we're treating these reports so carefully, because it's not necessarily what the reports contain, it's how we handle these reports that is being watched by many countries in terms of the impact that it may have on their ability to maintain confidential relations with ICRC. This is a very important aspect of ICRC's work and it's central to their ability to function worldwide in this manner.

You have to keep in mind, just last year ICRC visited close to half a million detainees around the world. Now DOD has a lot of detainees, but nowhere near that figure. That's 460,000 detainees held in more than 1,900 places of detention in more than 80 countries. Thinking about it in those terms, confidentiality becomes a particularly important issue.

Not all places, not all nations are nations that are assiduous about abiding by fundamental principles of humanitarian law, and the conditions of close to half a million people are involved and are at stake. We have at the government consulted with ICRC leadership about what constraints and what concerns they would have about the disclosure of their reports, and we note they're very sensitive to making sure that, in whatever we do, we at the government are mindful of the impact that disclosures that we may make can have on their overall mandate.

There are some interesting -- if you've had access, you visited the ICRC website recently, there are a number of interesting pieces in there, including an opinion from the international criminal tribunal for Yugoslavia and the ICRC's privilege not to even testify before a tribunal like that by virtue of the confidentiality that it practices. It's an interesting opinion to read.

With respect to DOD detention facilities, you know we have facilities in Afghanistan -- in Bagram and in Kandahar -- to which ICRC have access; Guantanamo, of course; Charleston; and of course, Iraq.

And to give you some sense of the kinds of issues that ICRC has raised -- you can see these are things that we've talked about with ICRC in press releases, so I'm not violating confidentiality in any way. But we can tell you that ICRC started to visit Guantanamo on January 18, 2002, and that included medical delegates. They have periodic visits that go for several weeks at a time.

In other facilities, they'll do -- have a different visitation pattern. It works well for their delegates to be there over a period of several weeks. When they arrive, they meet with the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo. They have an entry meeting; they lay out their plan; they exchange information. And when they leave, they also have an exit meeting with the commander, and they share views.

We don't always agree with ICRC. We don't expect to always agree with them, and they don't expect to always agree with us. What we consider valuable in our relationship is that we continue to talk, because it's in that continual dialogue that we find ways of addressing each other's concerns and each other's interests.

At Gitmo, the kinds of issues ICRC has brought to our attention have involved the treatment of the three detainees who were younger than age 17 who are no longer at Guantanamo. They were quite interested in making sure that their treatment was proper and discuss those issues with the commander of the JTF.

They have focused on mail and delivery of messages; more than 8,500 messages have been facilitated through the ICRC to detainees in Guantanamo.

They have focused on the open-ended nature of detention -- what they consider to be an open-ended nature of detention, where we may have disagreements about that characterization -- but they have no difficulty getting across to us their views about how that is perceived by detainees.

ICRC also does exit interviews with detainees before they leave Guantanamo to make sure that if detainees have a particular concern about returning to their country of nationality that that is known not just to ICRC but that it is known to the U.S. government as well.

And they both have expressed an interest on military commissions and have wanted to know more about how they would function and the rules that would apply to those proceedings.

In Bagram, the visits from ICRC started in January of 2002. They have also done the same thing as in Guantanamo. They have private visits, facilitate more than 700 messages. They work with us to coordinate releases. Oftentimes, finding the family members or finding the villages where a detainee needs to go is a hard task, and we benefit from this good relationship we have with the ICRC. They help us locate relatives, sometimes help us locate medical assistance for people who need medical assistance.

They are concerned in Bagram about longer-term detentions and the fact that the Bagram facility is now holding detainees for longer than a temporary holding facility would. That's not unusual. Bagram was designed to be initially a holding facility. We are looking -- the department is looking at the issues involved with having people there for a longer period of time. We would expect ICRC to bring these things to our attention, and we continue to talk about that.

To date there have been at least 18 visits to Gitmo by ICRC, and I can tell you that in Bagram they are there at least every other week. They have a regular pattern of going every two weeks and seeing detainees. Bagram is a different environment. It's a tactical environment, it's within an area of active hostilities, so there are a different set of constraints and different observations that stem from that than a facility like Guantanamo, who is not under mortar attack periodically, obviously.

I don't know what else I can tell you, so I think at this stage I'd encourage you to ask some questions if you're interested.


Q Yes, ma'am. Much of this has been nonspecific and generic, as you say is called for by secrecy. As the ICRC expressed concern over a prisoner who was being kept in Iraq and had not been registered with the ICRC and you're now going to register him, are there prisoners in Gitmo, Iraq and Afghanistan who are now not registered with the ICRC, and do you plan to correct that? Have they raised concerns about that?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm not aware that ICRC has raised those concerns in Iraq. I can tell you that all detainees in Guantanamo are registered with the ICRC, because I happen to know that. But I really cannot -- I don't have the facts on the others to give you more information on that.

Q And to your knowledge, though, they've not raised concerns about that, about that issue?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Not that I'm aware of. On the other hand, we've made it very clear that -- the secretary has made it very clear that the individual would be registered immediately and that this was an oversight.


Q Well, to follow up on that, the secretary said that he -- at his direction, the person was not registered with the ICRC in a timely fashion. Does he have the legal authority to do that?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think we're going to stay with ICRC matters and not go into that.


Q I don't understand. If you think the ICRC confidentiality is so strict, why is there ever an interest in delaying registration of a prisoner with them at all?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't think there's an interest in delaying registration or an interest in not addressing U.S. policy and practice with respect to international laws of armed conflict.

Q But Director Tenet --

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: There are -- it is very -- it is very difficult in the battlefield environment to do things as quickly, perhaps, as ICRC might expect. And in Iraq, in the middle of a conflict, that is a particularly challenging situation.

Q There seemed to have been in this one case a deliberate decision made, based on a call from Director Tent to Secretary Rumsfeld, not to register this person for a period of time.

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I understand what you're saying, but that is not what I'm here to discuss.

Q What level are you going to release the ICRC report from Iraq to the public? What have you told Congress and what are you going to tell the public about those reports?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: What we have told Congress is very similar to what I have just said about the importance of confidentiality and the nature of the relationship between the Department of Defense and the ICRC and the U.S. government and the ICRC. It is part of an ongoing dialogue that will continue. So we're nowhere near having finished our conversation with Congress on these issues.

Q Why are you giving some of the reports to the Senate and not to the House?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I didn't say that we have given reports to the Senate or to the House.

Q Can I follow up? I don't follow the logic. I understand that ICRC wants to maintain its confidentiality, so ICRC isn't going to release the reports or talk about what's in them. But I really don't understand why the Department of Defense is taking on the position that it is -- by not releasing it, it is thus maintaining the confidentiality of ICRC, because as long as ICRC doesn't release the documents and doesn't talk about what's in the documents, then it maintains its confidentiality for every country in the world. But whether or not the Department of Defense chooses to respond to requests from Congress, from elected representatives, that seems to be a completely separate issue. Maybe you can explain why you're commingling the two?

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: We're not commingling the two, and I did not say in my statement that the department is or is not providing information to Congress. I think, on the contrary, I said at the beginning of my statement: "Today, senior officials of the Department of Defense briefed the Armed Services Committee on communications between ICRC and the Department of Defense." What reports we are providing to the Congress as part of the conversation we're having with Congress -- I did not say that we're not providing reports. What I have said is that the importance is the importance of ensuring that in dealing with the issue of informing our committees of jurisdiction about the nature of the communications that we have with the ICRC, that we be mindful of the impact that that can have if not handled properly on the overall mission of the ICRC and the importance for ICRC's mission of confidentiality. That's what I said.

Q But, ma'am, in large part what you're doing is you're discussing the nature of this interaction, not the details of the interaction.

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: That's correct.

Q Now when you say -- but the problem with that is that if you don't say how the ICRC is complaining and how you are responding and there's no public discussion of that and therefore no pressure brought on anybody to respond to this, how would you be behooved to respond to the ICRC if all of this is secret? How do we know whether you're responding to --

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Our government responds to the ICRC at a variety of levels. Like many diplomatic communications, we do not make those conversations public at every stage and in every way. The conversations that we have and the interactions we have with ICRC in that respect are no different.

Q If you --

Q On American detainees, you would have to respond to how they were being treated, correct? If these were American citizens --

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: I don't understand your question.

Q So you're saying that you don't have to respond to the complaints that ICRC is raising about the treatment of --

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: No, I did not say that.

Q Well, that's basically the logic that you're --

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: No, I did not say that. We address the concerns that ICRC raises to our attention and to the attention of senior U.S. officials. We address them directly with the ICRC. And it's not just the Department of Defense; it's the agencies of the executive branch of the U.S. government. We do it day in and day out.

Q Can I ask you a question about something you said earlier? You said that the flow of information --

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Time is running out.

Q Pardon me?

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Time is running out, so --

Q Well, if you'll let me ask my question --


Q -- we'll use less time. You said the flow of information had been inadequate, right?

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Mm-hmm. That's what General Abizaid said.

Q Could you -- well, could you explain in what ways and what's being done about it?

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Well, as it became somewhat apparent, some officials and then senior officials in the Department of Defense may not have been aware of and were not aware of some of the significant concerns that ICRC was bringing to the attention of the U.S. officials in Iraq about conditions at facilities. It may have been known, and it was known to officials on the ground, but the nature of those concerns and the significance of those concerns was not communicated to senior officials in the Department of Defense, certainly on a timely basis. So those are the kinds of things that we're trying -- that the secretary is quite desirous of making sure we have corrected, and they will be corrected.


Q You mentioned four things that ICRC was concerned about --

STAFF: We'll make this the last one.

Q Okay. Four things ICRC was concerned about at Gitmo. Did they ever raise any concerns about interrogation techniques, some of which were described in the memos released this week that were approved by the secretary? Some were approved, rescinded, others were approved. Generally, in the time they've been there, have they raised concern about any of those techniques, any in particular you can tell us about the concerns they had and what was done about it?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: What I can say that ICRC has said publicly is that they are concerned that prolonged detention in a manner that leads a detainee to believe that it is indefinite is not -- does not meet the humane standards that they would like to see. But that's no different from any other prisoner in any other war who does not know when the conflict is going to end.

Q But are you telling us that they did not raise any specific concerns about specific techniques beyond the open-ended detention?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: What I am saying is what I am -- what I can say, given the confidential nature of the relationship that we have.

Q But why can you --

Q Could you just tell us whether --

Q I'm sorry. Wait.

Q -- these annual reviews -- oh, I'm sorry.

Q But why can you tell us about four specific things -- prolonged detention, the young detainees, and what not -- but not -- with all due respect, not seem to answer my question, which is kind of a yes or no question? Did they raise -- you've told us four things they did raise concern about. I'm asking did they also raise concern specifically about techniques used during interrogation, something which we learned about this week, that we don't need to talk about here.

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Like I said, the communications that we have with ICRC are confidential and --

Q But why can you tell us about four but not others?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Very simply; because it's on their website. And if ICRC has already made a public statement about it, I have no difficulty speaking about it. What ICRC has not made a public statement about because they do not consider it appropriate, I will not make a public statement about either. And that is the nature of the relationship that we have with the ICRC.

Q Could you tell us whether these annual --

STAFF: We've got to really make this the last one.

Q All right.

STAFF: We're already over.

Q Could you tell us whether these annual reviews that you're now starting of the status of the prisoners, is that in part a response to the ICRC's concern about keeping these people for a long time without charging them?

SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I would say that it is the secretary's desire to make sure that as we moved to a longer-term detention environment at Guantanamo, that we meet his requirement and his desire to make sure that we do not hold a detainee any longer than we have to.

It does address in a manner some of the ICRC concerns that have been raised. But the reason for the administrative review procedures is a more fundamental approach from the secretary to the detention mission at Guantanamo.

STAFF: Thank you very much.

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