Poor coordination of U.S. operations in Iraq and persistent divisions among Bush administration policymakers contributed to the failure of President Bush and his national security team to address an array of serious detention issues, U.S. officials and analysts said.
Long before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal became public, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq and a number of American diplomats warned that aggressive roundups and indefinite captivity were endangering U.S. success.
Officials now acknowledge that those warnings did not prompt urgent action from the White House or the Defense Department, which was focused on containing an increasingly violent insurgency. Nor did action follow early reports about the Abu Ghraib abuses by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, acknowledged yesterday that he knew of broader problems in the way U.S. troops arrested and imprisoned Iraqis, from rough treatment at the time of capture to delays in evaluating evidence against them. He also conceded "systemic problems" at Abu Ghraib.
But Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that they knew nothing about events at Abu Ghraib until January -- three months after the Red Cross alerted lower-level military officers to abuses they would later say were "tantamount to torture."
"We have a real problem with ICRC reports and the way that they're handled and the way that they move up and down the chain of command," Abizaid said. ". . . We've got a problem there that's got to be fixed."
"How did it happen so long and so deep and we not know?" asked Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Abizaid pointed to "failures in people doing their duty" and "failures in systems."
"And we should have known," he said. "And we should have uncovered it and taken action before it got to the point that it got to."
While the broad outline of the administration's handling of detention issues began to emerge soon after the abuse scandal erupted, interviews, testimony and a review of documents provide a fuller portrait of how persistent troubles within the Iraq prison system failed to capture the administration's attention.
The administration's response was tempered by the huge demands on U.S. troops, as well as by differences among military commanders and civilian U.S. authorities in Iraq about the importance of the detainee issue. Those differences were mirrored in Washington in jockeying between the departments of State and Defense, officials said.
Recent testimony by military and civilian Defense Department leaders indicates that U.S. commanders transmitted through the ranks a demand for more aggressive interrogations, but reacted less quickly when the Red Cross and others questioned their methods of arrest and detention.
Even when the Red Cross uncovered abuses in October, it took three months and Spec. Joseph M. Darby's tip for the Pentagon to open an investigation.
"It should have been obvious to anyone who spent 15 minutes on this problem, and who knew of the severity of the allegations last winter, that it was a very big deal that required immediate remedial action," Brookings Institution analyst Michael E. O'Hanlon said.
When the Iraq war began in March 2003, the Red Cross put U.S. authorities on notice that the Geneva Conventions should be honored. Bush described his expectations when discussing the capture of U.S. prisoners by Iraqi forces.
"We expect them to be treated humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture humanely," Bush told reporters. "If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals."
Yet complaints soon surfaced. On May 15, five weeks after major combat operations ended, Amnesty International publicized what it considered cases of ill treatment and raised its evidence with U.S. military personnel.
That month, the Red Cross also sent a memo to U.S. Central Command documenting more than 200 allegations of mistreatment. Abizaid, then the deputy commander, testified yesterday that he did not recall "having a lot to do with this particular report or paying much attention to it."
On June 26, Amnesty met with officials from the State Department and the Pentagon and wrote a follow-up letter to U.S. civilian coordinator L. Paul Bremer. The next month, Amnesty delivered to Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority a "memorandum on concerns" detailing alleged abuses.
In early July, the Red Cross sent reports to the U.S. military command in Qatar alleging mistreatment of about 50 Iraqis in the military intelligence section of Camp Cropper at Baghdad International Airport.
U.S. diplomats and other civilian CPA officials scattered in Iraqi cities began hearing that the detention policy was hurting the U.S.-led mission. Growing numbers of Iraqis were angered by arrests without clear evidence of wrongdoing and the lack of a system for notifying relatives.
"We look like Saddam," a senior U.S. official in Baghdad recently said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We pick up people and they disappear for a while. Wives, mothers, brothers -- they try to find their relatives and they can't."
Military intelligence officials would later tell the Red Cross that 70 percent to 90 percent of prisoners had been wrongly arrested, yet a senior aide to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the most basic screening and notification systems were missing: "We didn't have a system for differentiating between the dangerous ones and those we just picked up in a sweep."
Bremer and other civilians pressed Sanchez to streamline the detention system, the Baghdad official said. Although Sanchez promised to make changes, the official recalled, many of the occupation authority's requests were never implemented, while others took months.
"Our handling of detainees has been a steadily rising source of irritation that has most certainly become a contributing cause of violence," the official said. "This one lays at Sanchez's feet."
Bathsheba Crocker, part of a review team sent to Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last year, said the detention issue fit a pattern of the State Department and the Pentagon "not playing well together in the sandbox."
"We've seen time and again the State Department asking for things and not being listened to," said Crocker, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
As early as August, Bremer raised the detention issue with superiors in Washington. Aides said he and Powell began pushing for a stronger Pentagon effort in meetings with Bush's senior foreign policy team, including Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney.
Detention emerged more prominently in October and November as the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle intensified, said one U.S. official briefed on top-level meetings. Improving detention policy was one element of the emerging strategy urged by the State Department to calm tensions.
At the same time, U.S. military and civilian intelligence agencies concluded that they needed to squeeze more information from Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere if they hoped to quell rising violence.
Red Cross monitors, meanwhile, had been visiting Iraqis in 14 U.S. and British detention centers. In mid-October, during a trip to the vast Abu Ghraib compound, they discovered the abuse by the 372nd Military Police Company.
Shocked, they interrupted their interviews to tell the jail's commander.
In early November, the Red Cross delivered a report on Abu Ghraib to the U.S. military in Iraq -- yet the report did not reach the officer responsible for running the prison and other U.S. detention facilities, Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski. She said she was startled to be told of the findings for the first time at the end of November.
It was also odd, Karpinski said in an interview, that it was military intelligence officers who presented the report to her. Earlier Red Cross reports about Abu Ghraib had reached her desk and she had responded, she said. This time, she was told of the report by Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the senior military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, and Col. Marc Warren, a lawyer advising Sanchez.
Karpinski said she made a remark about the Red Cross assertion that Iraqi prisoners had been forced to wear women's underwear on their heads. She said one of half a dozen officers replied, "I told the commander to stop giving them Victoria's Secret catalogues."
Military intelligence officers made clear that they wanted to establish rules limiting Red Cross access to sensitive parts of the prison and to prisoners undergoing interrogation, Karpinski said. They argued that Red Cross interviews could "disrupt" the questioning process just as prisoners may have been about to talk.
Sanchez testified yesterday that he did not get word of the Abu Ghraib abuses until Jan. 13, when Darby tipped off military investigators. Sanchez opened an investigation within hours and soon ordered that all Red Cross documents be addressed to him.
The Red Cross delivered a blistering final study of Iraq detention policy to Bremer and Sanchez in February 2004.
In its first sentence, the Red Cross report alleged "serious violations of international humanitarian law." The document, which criticized harsh and allegedly indiscriminate arrests, brutal incarceration and the use of live ammunition to quell prison unrest, pointed to problems that went beyond a handful of soldiers.
There was a "broader pattern and a system, as opposed to individual acts," the report said.
Although the Red Cross completed much of the investigation for its report by the end of October, the organization did not distribute its findings beyond Iraq. This was in keeping with its standard protocol, which calls for working with locally based officials well positioned to correct problems. That practice, some U.S. officials contend, contributed to the slow pace of the administration's response.
When Jakob Kellenberger, the organization's president, visited Powell in mid-January, he focused on problems in U.S. detention centers in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He referred to Iraq only in general terms and did not mention Iraq when he met with Rice, aides have said.
The Geneva-based organization observes strict rules designed to maintain neutrality, credibility and access. Red Cross officials told U.S. authorities at the Pentagon and elsewhere that they believed relationships with U.S. military and civilian authorities in Iraq were bearing fruit. They did not want to jeopardize their prospects by seeming to go over their heads.
Worried that the Iraq problems were not receiving sufficient attention, U.S. diplomats persuaded the Red Cross to give a copy of its findings quietly to the American mission in Geneva in early March. The details were more damning than anyone had imagined.
State Department deputy spokesman J. Adam Ereli said the department's legal counsel, William Howard Taft IV, and Assistant Secretary of State Gene Dewey read the report and briefed Powell.
More than two months later, influential Defense Department officials startled Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee by conceding that they had not read the report.
"Something does not connect there," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.
Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Baghdad and Mike Allen and R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington contributed to this report.