Members of the House Armed Services Committee reviewed nearly two dozen confidential reports yesterday about U.S. prison operations in Iraq, documents that some Democrats said should have alerted officials to a pattern of problems and potential abuses of detainees long before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal became public earlier this year.
The Pentagon provided the International Committee of the Red Cross reports to Congress beginning yesterday, allowing restricted access to about 150 pages of material that detailed prison conditions for detainees across Iraq. Members of the Senate are scheduled to have access today, although Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) told members yesterday that the ICRC documents are not a complete set.
Sources said there were repetitive complaints about detainee living conditions, food, general treatment, interactions with interrogators and other humanitarian requirements, with some of the harshest criticism coming around the time of the alleged serious abuses at Abu Ghraib last fall.
While those who viewed the secret reports declined to provide specific details, some Democrats on the Armed Services Committee said they felt the information was stale, tracked news reports over the past few months, and failed to describe the current state of the Iraqi prisons. Several Republican committee members did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday afternoon.
According to those who saw them, the reports appeared to show that U.S. authorities in Iraq should have known there were rampant problems in places such as Abu Ghraib long before a military police soldier came forward in January with a compact disc filled with the now-infamous incriminating photographs of abuse.
"All it did was confirm what reasonable people, I think, understand," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.). "There were many red flags. There was contemporaneous reporting by the ICRC to the chain of command . . . of deep concerns on their part on treatment issues of detainees. [It is] unambiguous in my mind that there was conduct and a pattern and practice . . . that were inappropriate.
"Whoever got them did not have the presence of mind to hit the panic button," Tauscher said.
The ICRC reports, which are typically kept secret to protect the rights of detainees and to ensure that human rights officials can have continued access to prisons around the world, were provided to Congress with the organization's approval, according to the Pentagon.
Armed Services Committee members said the reports were contained in a three-ring binder in a room in the Rayburn House Office Building, copies were not allowed, and the materials could not leave the room. No one was permitted to take notes.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said he found the briefing and access to the documents "unsatisfactory" because it provided little new information and because he believed Pentagon officials who briefed members were unable to shed any light on the abuses.
Cooper said there were several reports indicating problems before the Abu Ghraib abuses came to light, yet he said it appears they were ignored.
"Lots of problems were raised," Cooper said. "They would have known about them if they can read English."
According to the reports, the ICRC apparently began alleging more serious abuses last fall, about the same time U.S. military officials ramped up interrogation efforts in Iraq in an attempt to locate elusive weapons of mass destruction and to find Saddam Hussein. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who reviewed the reports yesterday, said he believes it is possible that U.S. troops lapsed into "Hussein-type behavior" under pressure from Bush administration officials to produce results.
"Is it possible that someone from above was telling them to take the gloves off because we have to find Hussein?" Taylor said. "I have not had assurances from this administration that that did not happen."
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials also briefed staff members of the Senate Judiciary and Armed Services committees yesterday on a series of videotaped incidents involving detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the DVDs show the conduct of an "Initial Reaction Force" and treatment of prisoners.
Leahy said the sampling of videos appears to show that detainees at Guantanamo Bay were not subjected to the "egregious abuses" that occurred at Abu Ghraib or at prisons in Afghanistan, but he said it is "mystifying why the Department of Defense's procedures for the treatment of detainees vary so dramatically from one facility to another."