WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged yesterday that, at the request of the CIA's director, he had authorized the U.S. military to hide an Iraqi detainee last fall from the International Red Cross and other organizations that monitor treatment of prisoners.
Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet asked him in a letter to take custody of an Iraqi national believed to be a high-ranking member of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish terrorist group suspected of having links to the al-Qaida network, and keep him off the prison rolls.
"We were asked not to immediately register the individual, and we did that," Rumsfeld said, refusing to discuss the classified letter from Tenet that contained the request and referring further questions to the CIA. Tom Crispell, a CIA spokesman, said the agency would not comment on the letter.
Asked whether other detainees were held in similar secrecy, and not registered, the defense secretary said, "I don't know. ... I'll be happy to tell you more when we get more."
Rumsfeld said the CIA has asked the military "on occasion" to take custody of individuals it had captured or arrested.
"I can think of one additional case off the top of my head. ... I think there's some," he said.
But a senior Pentagon official said later that he knew of no other cases of detainees being held off the books at the request of the CIA.
The detainee held in secret, said Rumsfeld, was not housed at Abu Ghraib prison, where abuse of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers is part of an ongoing Army investigation. A senior official said the individual has been held since October at Camp Cropper, a detention facility on the edge of the Baghdad airport.
The prisoner was treated humanely, said Rumsfeld, and "we are now in the process of registering" the man with the Red Cross. He denied reports quoting anonymous intelligence officials as saying that the military had lost track of the detainee.
"He wasn't lost in the system; they've known where he was and that he was there, in Iraq, for this period of time," Rumsfeld said.
Under the Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of captured combatants, the International Red Cross is authorized to have access to all prisons and detainees. The conventions do not say the Red Cross must have immediate access, but rather the ability to visit prisoners as soon as possible.
"To the best of our knowledge, we have access to all places of detention and all people" under the Geneva Conventions, said Amanda Williamson, a spokesman for the International Red Cross in Washington. "We will follow the case up with U.S. authorities."
She said Red Cross officials in Baghdad would discuss the matter with U.S. civilian officials or the military in the Iraqi capital.
Asked why the CIA might want to hold a prisoner incommunicado, Rumsfeld said: "The only reason for delay [in registering] ... that I can think of would be that your interest is in not interrupting an interrogation process of some kind, by having the [Red Cross] gain access. But I'm not an expert."
Daniel J. Dell'Orto, the Pentagon's deputy general counsel, said that "for purposes of imperative military necessity the Red Cross could be denied access for some period of time to deal with the sort of things the secretary's indicated. You need to interrogate, you need to find information on this person."
A report this year by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba was sharply critical of detainees' being brought to Abu Ghraib prison by "other government agencies," a reference to the CIA, and not registered by the military.
A "handful" of these "ghost detainees" were moved around the facility and hidden from the Red Cross, Taguba wrote, adding: "This maneuver was deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine, and in violation of international law."
But Rumsfeld said the detainee held at the request of the CIA "should be looked at separately" from those described in the Taguba report.
"We know from our knowledge that [Tenet] has the authority to do this," Rumsfeld said.
Meanwhile, the Army announced that the investigation into the role of Army intelligence in the abuses at Abu Ghraib will now be overseen by Gen. Paul J. Kern, head of the Army Materiel Command.
Kern replaces Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as the senior officer to review the findings. Sanchez removed himself so that he could be questioned by investigators.