Blindfolded detainees, apprehended by US soldiers in a village south of Baghdad. The US has secretly transferred more than 200 suspected militants to their home countries, instead of assuming responsibility for detaining and interrogating them. (Photo: Petr David Josek / AP)
Washington - The United States military has secretly handed over more than 200 militants to the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries, nearly all in the past two years, as part of an effort to reduce the burden of detaining and interrogating foreign fighters captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to American military officials.
The system is similar in some ways to the rendition program used by the Central Intelligence Agency since the Sept. 11 attacks to secretly transfer people suspected of being militants back to their home countries to be jailed and questioned.
But there are significant differences; the prisoners can block their transfers to home countries, military officials say. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross interview all detainees before they are returned to their home countries, Bernard Barrett, a Red Cross spokesman, said.
Many of these militants are initially held, without notification to the Red Cross, sometimes for weeks at a time, in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by American Special Operations forces, the military officials said.
They said that foreign intelligence officers had been allowed access to these camps to question militants there, as a prelude to the transfers.
In interviews, the military officials said the transfers represented an effort by the United States to find a better way to detain and interrogate the militants.
The American military's prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the secret prisons abroad run by the C.I.A. have drawn criticism, and there have been concerns over the use of Iraqi and Afghan jails. Some have questioned whether those facilities should play any future role in housing terrorism suspects.
As a rationale for the approach, the American officials said that language skills and cultural knowledge in most cases made the Saudis, Egyptians and others best suited to question the captured suspects, and best equipped to act on any intelligence they provide about militant networks in their countries.
The effort was described in interviews over the last six weeks with more than a dozen current and former American military, intelligence and foreign policy officials, some of whom would speak only on condition of anonymity.
Unlike in Afghanistan, where many prisoners captured by American forces were sent to Guantánamo Bay in the first five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, prisoners captured by the United States in Iraq have never been sent to American detention centers outside Iraq, and until The New York Times began to conduct interviews for this article in July, military officials had not acknowledged that any had been repatriated.
American military officials said the transfers required assurances that the prisoners would be well taken care of, but they would not specify those assurances, and human rights advocates questioned whether compliance could be monitored.
While the militants are in American custody, Pentagon rules allow them to be held at the Special Operations sites in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan, for up to two weeks, with extensions permitted with the approval of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates or his representative, military officials said.
About 30 to 40 foreign prisoners are held at the Iraq camp at any given time, the officials said; they did not provide an estimate for the Afghan camp, but suggested that the number was smaller.
Saudi and Egyptian intelligence officers have been permitted to interrogate militants at the camps, although United States military officials say that the foreign interrogators who operate in the American camps are monitored by American soldiers, and that they must follow American rules.
They said restrictions on interrogation techniques and on the length of secret detentions were carefully regulated, a response to problems within the American military detention system, including the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Special Operations site in Balad, Iraq, that emerged beginning in 2004.
The officials said the prisoners who were repatriated were sent home only after being moved into the general American-run prison population, a step that meant that their names were reported to the Red Cross.
In all, they said, 214 prisoners in Iraq and at least two more in Afghanistan have been transferred to the custody of their home countries over the past four years, and while the Iraqi government has helped to facilitate some of the transfers, they were not subject to the approval of either the Iraqi government or the Afghan government.
Henry A. Crumpton, who in 2006 was the State Department's top counterterrorism official, said the decision to begin repatriating detainees was driven "by the realization that Guantánamo was a strategic failure."
"All of us in the discussion agreed that Guantánamo was not working for lots of reasons and that the simplest way to proceed is that when you have foreign fighters captured you send them back home," he said. "If you don't send them to Gitmo, and the C.I.A. doesn't want them, then where do you put them?"
The American military now holds about 170 foreign prisoners in Iraq, down from about 465 in December 2005, and the current group includes more than 30 Egyptians, 20 Syrians, 20 Jordanians, 10 Yemenis, 10 Saudis and 10 Libyans, according to Maj. Neil V. Fisher II, a spokesman for Task Force 134, the American unit in charge of detention operations in Iraq. In addition to these numbers, the Iraqi government is holding 426 foreigners, mostly combatants, in its own prisons, and American officials say some foreign fighters have been convicted in Iraqi courts and executed.
Defense Department officials would not say how many prisoners in all had been held in the Special Operations camps, or how many had been held under the rule that allowed their secret detentions to be extended beyond two weeks.
The Defense Department officials also refused to talk in detail about the interrogations conducted at the military camps by representatives of foreign intelligence services. A Pentagon spokesman said that all foreign interrogators who were taken to the Special Operations sites were "monitored by D.O.D. personnel, and their conduct must be consistent with D.O.D. policy," specifically the United States Army Field Manual, which bans coercive interrogation techniques.
"The U.S. has aggressively looked for opportunities to repatriate detainees," said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the chief spokesman for the United States Central Command. "In countries where we know they have a program to rehabilitate detainees, like Saudi Arabia, we've had good success."
The Saudis have sought to use their jails to convert militants into ambassadors against extremism, a program that American officials have praised, though they caution that it is too soon to say whether it will have a long-term impact.
A Saudi official said, "What you have is a situation in which the U.S. wants to get all the Saudi prisoners to Saudi Arabia because the Saudis know how to deal with them."
Admiral Smith said the current repatriation system hinged on a series of bilateral agreements that the United States had reached with participating countries. He said the United States must receive assurances from each country that detainees would be treated humanely and that they would not simply be released.
Christoph Wilcke, who researches the prison systems of Middle Eastern countries for Human Rights Watch, said that international organizations had very little information about the treatment of detainees in the prisons run by the Saudi intelligence service, in part because the Red Cross had never been allowed to operate inside the country.
"When it comes to sending people back home, there is really no way for us to find out how they are doing," he said.
Current and former American officials interviewed for this article said the Bush administration decided in 2006 to begin steadily reducing the number of foreign fighters in military detention.
The decision was influenced by several factors, the officials said. First, there was a growing realization that the prison at Guantánamo Bay was doing irreparable damage to America's image abroad and might actually be a catalyst for the spread of Islamic radicalism. Also, that year the Supreme Court shot down the Bush administration's plans for trying Guantánamo detainees by military commission.
There was also pressure building at the time to empty the secret prisons run by the C.I.A. and reduce the agency's role in detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.
In September 2006, President Bush ordered that the 14 prisoners who at the time were in C.I.A. detention be transferred to Guantánamo Bay.
Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, who until June led detention operations in Iraq, said in a telephone interview that he was not aware of any detainee held beyond two weeks without an authorized seven-day extension, nor of any detainee being held at a field detention site longer than a total of three weeks.
But General Stone said foreign fighters detained in the general prison population in Iraq could be interrogated again by Special Operations forces if interrogators obtained new information. "Detainees can be checked out," said General Stone, who noted that he monitored such cases very closely. "It happens all the time."
The Special Operations prison in Afghanistan has occasionally been a temporary holding site for prisoners captured outside of the country, a move that has drawn criticism from some American officials.
One person suspected of belonging to Al Qaeda, who was captured by American Special Operations forces during the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in late 2006, was taken to Bagram.
Ronald E. Neumann, who was the United States ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to April 2007, recalled in a telephone interview that he objected to the plans because the military intended to spirit the detainee into the country without notifying the Afghan government.
Mr. Neumann, who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, said: "It's the kind of action that if it leaks, can cause political reverberations in the street. There were qualities of imperial hubris that I thought were wrong."
In the end, a compromise was reached. The detainee was taken to Bagram briefly before being transferred to another undisclosed location, and the Afghan government was notified after the prisoner was transferred out of Afghanistan.
"The guy didn't stay very long," Mr. Neumann said.
Mohamed Hussein contributed reporting from Baghdad.