The International Committee of the Red Cross is breaking with tradition by publicly criticizing the United States for the way it handles terror suspects, say Pentagon officials and outside experts.
On at least two occasions in recent months, the ICRC overtly criticized the Bush administration for detaining suspected Taliban and al Qaeda fighters without giving them access to judicial proceedings. The administration has deemed them “enemy combatants” and not members of a formal military organization that would give them the rights of prisoners of war.
And yesterday, the New York Times reported on what it said was a Red Cross confidential report detailing the purported abuse of detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A Pentagon spokesman issued a statement denying that its personnel mistreat or torture inmates at Guantanamo, where the United States is holding 550 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members.
Andrew Apostolou, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he cannot recall the European-based ICRC ever criticizing other governments, including the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, so harshly.
“The problem is they are applying a double standard to the U.S.,” said Mr. Apostolou, whose think tank conducts research on the war on terror. “The fact of life is they never undertook these sorts of activities in the recent past against flagrant human rights violators.”
A Pentagon adviser, who asked not to be named, said in his dealings with the Red Cross, there is always an attitude that “al Qaeda had a moral equivalence to the United States. They didn’t trust anything we said.”
Asked whether there is a belief inside the Pentagon that the ICRC harbors an anti-U.S. bias, the official answered, “Absolutely.”
The ICRC says it follows a practice of submitting confidential reports so as not to offend the government from which it is seeking better treatment of prisoners.
But conservatives see a different pattern when it comes to how the ICRC comments on U.S.-held prisoners in Iraq and terrorists.
Some reports have leaked to the press, although the Red Cross denies that it released them. In other cases, the organization has issued public statements lambasting the United States.
Mr. Apostolou said the Red Cross is getting pressure from more publicity oriented human rights groups to pummel Washington. And, he said, there is a mantra within some of these organizations that says, “Al Qaeda is weaker than the United States, ergo al Qaeda must be the aggrieved party. … I think since September 11, human rights groups have been very hostile to what the U.S. has been doing.”
Frank J. Gaffney, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who is president of the Center for Security Policy, noted the irony of the ICRC pushing for the rights of al Qaeda terrorists when the Red Cross’ mission is to safeguard civilians in time of war.
“I find it not only extraordinary, but deeply reprehensible that the ICRC is engaged in this kind of effort to protect and promote the interest of people who clearly have no interest in the fate of civilians,” Mr. Gaffney said. “The International Committee of the Red Cross has become, I believe, an agitation operation against American interest for some time, and it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed their work that they are hostile, if not downright contemptuous, of American security concerns and requirements.”
Amanda Williamson, spokeswoman for the ICRC’s Washington regional delegation, said the organization stays neutral.
“I would say one of our guiding principles is neutrality,” Ms. Williamson said. “We stay out of politics. We don’t pick sides.”
The Geneva-based ICRC is run by a team of Swiss government employees, former diplomats, lawyers and human rights workers. It is charged with safeguarding Geneva Convention rules for the treatment of detainees and maintains a staff of more than 10,000 in 72 countries.
The president since 2000 is Jakob Kellenberger, who holds a doctorate from the University of Zurich and is former Swiss secretary of state for foreign affairs.
The director of operations is Pierre Kraehenbuehl, a career field investigator. The Washington regional office, which sends inspection teams to Guantanamo, is directed by Geoff Loane, who most recently headed the Belgrade delegation.
Ms. Williamson said the Washington office dispatches a team to Guantanamo every six weeks. It comes after what she called “three golden rules”: meeting with each detainee in private, completely inspecting the facility and relaying any messages from detainees to his family.
After each round, the team sits down with the camp commander to go over its findings.
The military denies any mistreatment and warns that some detainees tell lies.
“We did not bring hundreds of innocent civilians off the battlefield,” Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, who commands the Guantanamo facility, told the Associated Press. “If you listen to every story, I think you’ll hear a common drumbeat of this person who tells you he was a rug merchant or whatnot. I think it’s all part of a deliberate effort to mislead and to deceive.”
Some released detainees have gone back to the battlefield in Afghanistan to try to kill Americans and their allies, the Pentagon says.