WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is facing a wave of new allegations that the abuse of foreign detainees in US military custody was more widespread, varied, and grave in the past three years than the Defense Department has long maintained.
New documents released yesterday detail a series of probes by Army criminal investigators into multiple cases of threatened executions of Iraqi detainees by US soldiers, as well as of thefts of currency and other private property, physical assaults, and deadly shootings of detainees at detention camps in Iraq.
In many of the cases, Army commanders chose noncriminal punishments for those involved in the abuse, or the investigations were so flawed that prosecutions could not go forward, the documents show. Human rights groups said yesterday that, as a result, the penalties imposed were too light to suit the offenses.
The complaints arose from several thousand new pages of internal reports, investigations, and e-mails from different agencies, which with other documents released in the past two weeks paint a finer-grained picture of military abuse and criminal behavior at prisons in Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan than previously available.
The documents disclosed by a coalition of groups that had sued the government to obtain them make clear that both regular soldiers and special forces took part in the abuse, and that the misconduct included shocking detainees with electric guns, shackling them without food and water, and wrapping a detainee in an Israeli flag.
The variety of the incidents and the fact that they occurred over a three-year period undermine the Pentagon's past insistence -- arising out of the summertime scandal surrounding the mistreatment at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison -- that the abuse largely occurred during a few months at that prison, and that it mostly involved detainee humiliation or intimidation rather than the deliberate infliction of pain.
After the latest disclosures, including that officials in other federal agencies had objected to these actions by soldiers -- to the point of urging, in some cases, war crimes prosecutions -- White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded yesterday with a promise that President Bush expects a full investigation and corrective actions "to make sure that abuse does not occur again."
The details of the alleged abuse appeared to catch some administration officials by surprise, although five different agencies for weeks have been culling releasable records from their files, under an agreement worked out by federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who was responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by five independent groups seeking anything pertinent to detainee deaths, abuse, and transfers to other countries since Sept. 11, 2001.
McClellan said that he did not know if the White House was informed about the incidents detailed in the documents released on Monday. These included the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the impersonation of FBI agents by military interrogators -- two of many practices that provoked concern among FBI agents stationed there.
"In terms of specifics, this information is becoming public, so we're becoming aware of more information as it becomes public, as you are," McClellan said. He said he did not know whether FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has notified the Defense Department about his concerns, but noted that the Pentagon takes abuse allegations "very seriously."
Amrit Singh -- a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the four groups that sued to obtain the documents -- said she believes the disclosure requirement will eventually encompass hundreds of thousands of pages of internal administration documents, although only 9,000 pages have been released so far. Yesterday, the judge told the CIA that it could not delay making its own disclosures until an internal probe of the abuse is completed, Singh said. "What the documents show so far was that the abuse was widespread and systemic; that it was the result of decisions taken by high-ranking officials; and that the abuse took place within a culture of secrecy and neglect," Singh said.
Colonel Joseph Curtin, the Army's top spokesman, urged a different view of the documents released yesterday, all drawn from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. In detailing internal probes of 46 cases of misconduct, they show "that the Army does take seriously and investigates any allegation of detainee abuse," he said.