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16 July 2004

Pentagon Creates New Policy Office to Review Detainee Issues

Red Cross reports to be elevated quickly to senior defense officials

By Jacquelyn S. Porth
Washington File Security Affairs Writer

Washington --- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed an order July 16 creating a new office in the Pentagon to deal exclusively with issues related to detainees or "enemy combatants" held in U.S. military custody.

The new Office of Detainee Affairs will be run by an as yet unnamed deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, who will report to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith --- the third-highest ranking Pentagon official.

C. Ryan Henry, principal deputy under secretary for policy, announced the development during a July 16 press conference at the Pentagon, saying the new office will be tasked with developing policy recommendations for Rumsfeld on the handling of foreign detainees.

Asked if the Pentagon reorganization reflects the bureaucracy's admission that the detainee issue has been badly handled, Henry would only say that in a "learning organization" such as Rumsfeld is running "you're always looking for better ways to do things."

Henry also said the new directive calls for reports issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross on concerns regarding detainees to be swiftly sent on to the detainee affairs office. It will be the new deputy assistant secretary's responsibility to convene a joint committee to review such reports, he said, and to advise Rumsfeld about matters requiring his attention or guidance.

If the policy officers were to learn of any verifiable situation resembling or even approaching the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he said, it would "be brought to the secretary immediately."

The reorganization is also part of a greater, ongoing effort to keep up with demands from members of Congress to be kept informed about all investigations relating to detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. Henry said all the reports regarding detainees held in Iraq, as well as enemy combatants in custody at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been provided to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

Henry estimated that the military is conducting around 100 inquiries, investigations, or assessments into "what went wrong" and how detainees could have been abused at the hands of U.S. military police. Asked if it would have helped had the newly created Pentagon office been in place earlier, the official indicated it "probably would have."

Henry said the new office represents an attempt to have a coherent and seamless policy on detainees. The number of personnel to be assigned to the deputy assistant secretary has not been determined, the official said, adding that Rumsfeld will consult with the White House in deciding who will head the office. "We want to move out as fast as we can," he said when asked about these personnel issues.

Henry was asked if new cases of detainee abuse are surfacing. He did not identify any, but did say that as the various investigations play out "new facts are coming in" as part of the ongoing process of discovery. Although the official denied any personal knowledge about any specific cases, he also said, "we are in a mode of discovery right now on exactly what went on in all aspects of the global war on terrorism in relationship" to the detainees.

Earlier on July 16, Navy Secretary Gordon England told reporters in a separate Defense Department briefing that the first military tribunals to determine whether detainees held in Guantanamo have been correctly identified as enemy combatants will take place the third or fourth week of July.

He said all of the 594 detainees have been notified that they can contest their designated status as enemy combatants, are entitled to have a personal (military) representative assigned to help them present their case at the fact-based administrative proceeding, and have the right to seek review in the U.S. court system regarding their indefinite detention.

Once a detainee's case is presented to the tribunal, the status will be decided immediately, England said, and if the detainee is found not to be an enemy combatant, he will be free to return home.

England said 95 percent of the detainees who have been newly apprised of their rights have reacted positively, asking when the tribunal will process begin and when they can meet with their personal representatives?

Asked how many personal representatives would be assigned to help the detainees, England replied, "as many as it takes." The Navy secretary was assigned by Rumsfeld to be the senior civilian defense official overseeing the military tribunal process.

The written procedures for the military tribunals have yet to be released. The procedures, which England promised would be coming soon, will be revised periodically as the tribunal process evolves.

He also said a few members of the media will be allowed to observe the tribunals, once the process gets under way and the pool reporters are cleared to travel to Guantanamo.

The first group of tribunal staff is already there and getting oriented, he said.

Personal representatives, who England said are not acting as legal advocates for the detainees, will have initial contact with the detainees with whom they are paired during the week of July 18.