The change begins to lift the veil from the American government’s most secretive remaining overseas prisons by allowing the Red Cross to track the custody of dozens of the most dangerous suspected terrorists and foreign fighters plucked off the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is a major advance for the organization in its long fight to gain more information about these detainees. The military had previously insisted that disclosing any details about detainees at the secretive camps could tip off other militants and jeopardize counterterrorism missions.
Detention practices will be in the spotlight this week. The Central Intelligence Agency on Monday is to release a highly critical 2004 report on the agency’s interrogation program by the C.I.A. inspector general.
The long awaited report provides new details about abuses that took place inside the agency’s secret prisons, including C.I.A. officers carrying out mock executions and threatening at least one prisoner with a gun and a power drill.
Also, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to decide in the next several days whether to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate the interrogations of suspects accused of being involved in terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The new Pentagon policy on detainees took effect this month with no public announcement from the military or the Red Cross. It represents another shift in detention policy by the Obama administration, which has already vowed to close the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by next year and is conducting reviews of the government’s procedures for interrogating and detaining militants.
A spokesman for the Red Cross in Washington, Bernard Barrett, declined to comment on the new notification policy, citing the organization’s longstanding practice of refusing to talk about its discussions with the Defense Department about detention issues.
Unlike the secret prisons run by the C.I.A. that President Obama ordered closed in January, the military continues to operate the Special Operations camps, which it calls temporary screening sites, in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan.
As many as 30 to 40 foreign prisoners have been held at the camp in Iraq at any given time, military officials said; they did not provide an estimate for the Afghan camp but suggested that the number was smaller.
The Red Cross is allowed access to almost all American military prisons and battlefield detention sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Special Operations camps have been excluded.
The New York Times reported in 2006 that some soldiers at the temporary detention site in Iraq, then located at Baghdad International Airport and called Camp Nama, beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces, and used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball.
Military officials say conditions at the camps have improved significantly since then, but virtually all details of the sites remain shrouded in secrecy.
Under Pentagon rules, detainees at the Special Operations camps can be held for up to two weeks. Formerly, the military at that point had to release a detainee; transfer him to a long-term prison in Iraq or Afghanistan, to which the Red Cross has broad access; or seek one-week renewable extensions from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates or his representative.
Under the new policy, the military must notify the Red Cross of the detainees’ names and identification numbers within two weeks of capture, a notification that before happened only after a detainee was transferred to a long-term prison. The option to seek custody extensions has been eliminated, a senior Pentagon official said.
Pentagon officials sought to play down the significance of the shift, saying that most detainees at the camps had already been registered with the Red Cross within the two-week period.
“The department makes every effort to register detainees with the I.C.R.C. as soon as practicable after capture,” said Bryan G. Whitman, a Defense Department spokesman.
But human rights advocates hailed the policy change, saying that Special Operations forces had often extended the custody of detainees, leaving them in a legal limbo for weeks on end.
“Any improvement in I.C.R.C. notification and access is a positive development because it not only accounts for the whereabouts of a person, but hopefully will expedite notification to the family who is left anxious wondering about the fate of his or her relative,” said Sahr MuhammedAlly, a senior associate for law and security at Human Rights First, an advocacy group. The change in notifying the Red Cross stemmed largely from a new climate that emerged after Mr. Obama’s election, military officials said. The new administration set out the larger goal to revamp detention and interrogation practices that had drawn international condemnation under the Bush administration.
Into this environment stepped Gen. David H. Petraeus, newly selected to lead the Central Command of American military operations in the Middle East. When he was the top commander in Iraq, General Petraeus supported ideas promoted by Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone to overhaul the detention system there, separating hard-core militants from petty criminals who could be easily radicalized, offering detainees vocational training and family visits. The United States is now adopting this approach to revamp the Afghan prison system.
This spring, based on a request by General Petraeus, Mr. Gates ordered a review of the Special Operations camps. Lt. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, an Air Force officer who had served on the military’s Joint Staff in Washington, spent several weeks in Afghanistan and Iraq examining the sites. At the request of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Breedlove also accompanied Special Operations teams on some of their missions to observe how they treated prisoners at the point of capture.
In July, Admiral Mullen sent a confidential message to all of the military service chiefs and senior field commanders asking them to redouble their efforts to alert troops to the importance of treating detainees properly.
Admiral Mullen felt compelled to issue his message after viewing photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by American military personnel in the early years of the wars, a senior military official said.
Mr. Obama decided in May not to make the photographs public, warning that the images could ignite attacks against American troops.
In a classified report dated June 17, General Breedlove largely praised the conditions at the camps. He found only minor problems, including a failure to provide a Koran to each detainee, and a lack of arrows or other symbols indicating which direction Muslim prisoners should face to pray toward Mecca.
Military officials acknowledged that the Special Operations forces might have improved conditions to impress the visiting investigator. But one of the general’s recommendations surprised officials: provide more information about detainees at the camps to the Red Cross earlier in the detention process.
The Red Cross has been lobbying the Pentagon for years for access to those held at the Special Operations camps, or least information about who is being detained in them. General Breedlove’s recommendation gave the group’s efforts a prominent military endorsement.Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.