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Senators question secret removal of detainees from Iraq

WASHINGTON -- Leading senators expressed concern yesterday about a report that the CIA has secretly moved as many as a dozen unidentified prisoners out of Iraq in the past six months, a possible violation of international treaties.

Senator John S. McCain, Republican of Arizona, said interrogations can help extract crucial information from detainees on plans for attacks against Americans. But international law, including the Geneva Conventions, must be followed, he said.

''These conventions and these rules are in place for a reason, because you get on a slippery slope and you don't know where to get off," McCain said on ABC's ''This Week."

''The thing that separates us from the enemy is our respect for human rights."

Senator Joseph R. Biden, Democrat from Delaware, called for new leadership at the Justice Department. The detainees were removed without notification to the Red Cross, congressional oversight committees, the Defense Department, or CIA investigators, according to a report yesterday in The Washington Post that cited unidentified government officials.

The Justice Department drafted a memo dated March 19, 2004, authorizing the CIA to take prisoners out of Iraq for interrogation, according to the report.

Iraqis can be taken out of the country for a ''brief but not indefinite period," and ''illegal aliens" can be removed permanently under ''local immigration law," the newspaper quoted the memo as saying.

The transfers could violate the Geneva Conventions, which do not allow ''individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory."

White House spokesman Sean McCormick said US policy is to comply with the international treaty, which protects civilians during war and occupation.

The Bush administration did not consider Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan to be ''protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions. Many were sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for interrogation.

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