NEW YORK – As prisoners are released en masse from Iraq's Abu Ghraib (search) prison, some military experts say bad guys may slip through the cracks and be given their freedom amid the effort to quell the furor over the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.
The potential problem is not unique to Abu Ghraib. The United States may run similar risks at prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — both of which house suspected Al Qaeda (search) and Taliban (search) members.
On Sunday, 320 prisoners were released from Abu Ghraib — the prison outside of Baghdad notorious first for horrific acts of torture carried out by Saddam Hussein's regime and later by the abuse of some prisoners by U.S. soldiers.
The release followed a pattern that has become familiar in recent weeks. On May 28, 394 were released; more than 450 were released on May 21; and nearly 300 were released on May 14. Since January, more than 4,500 detainees have been released from the prison.
"It's pretty clear to me there's going to be some people released that probably shouldn't be," said Ret. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the host of Fox News' "War Stories."
'We Could Be Letting Go Any Matter of Bad Person'
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller (search), prison commander of Abu Ghraib, has said he wants to thin out the prisoner population as quickly as possible — 300-400 detainees per week either released outright or sent to the Iraqi justice system. He wants to cut the number of inmates from the current 3,800 to fewer than 2,000.
The inmates at Abu Ghraib are not minor criminals. They're considered "security detainees" and are suspected of playing roles in guerrilla attacks against coalition forces in Iraq.
"We clearly used massive roundups, but because of language problems and poor intelligence we to this day don't know everybody we had in that prison," said retired Army Col. David Hunt, a Fox News military analyst. "We should be letting people go … [but] it's just another consequence of this scandal that we could be letting go any matter of bad person."
A recent background briefing given by a senior Pentagon official to various military experts revealed that it's taking nine months to sort out the bad guys from the good at Abu Ghraib — some of the innocent detainees just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a participant at that briefing told Foxnews.com.
The senior Pentagon official said the U.S. military is trying to accelerate that process and hope to get that number down to between 90 to 120 days.
"I think they have a good vetting process open now. I think with the sheer numbers they're releasing … is indicative of them going through and paying specific attention to the people they can release immediately," said Lt. Col. Tim Eads, a retired U.S. Army special operations member and Fox News military analyst. But "the possibility has increased that we're releasing bad guys."
Experts said that in a time when the United States is under fire for various techniques used to extract information about who is attacking U.S.-led forces and where, as well as where any weapons may be hidden, there's a risk the entire process may go too soft.
"I think we're in a time of political correctness and we'll do anything so we don't have another Abu Ghraib," Eads said. But "the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, unfortunately, and I think it's gonna take awhile to reach a happy medium."
At the same time, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez (search), the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, is reviewing detainee procedures in the wake of the abuse scandal to prohibit techniques such as sleep and sensory deprivation and forcing detainees into uncomfortable "stress positions."
Sanchez recently told military intelligence officers that he wouldn't approve any stressful techniques other than putting prisoners alone in cells or in segregated units with only a small number of other detainees.
"Basically what we're left with is going up to the guy and saying, 'Hey are you a bad guy?' and when he says 'No,' we say 'Oh, ok, here have a candy bar,'" Eads said.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, who leads the Combined Forces in Afghanistan, told one television network recently that he's in the middle of issuing new policy guidance to treat detainees in prisons there "with dignity and respect."
But those prisoners, as well as those being held at Guantanamo Bay (search), do not receive the same protections as the Iraqi prisoners.
"Taliban and Al Qaeda guys — those are terrorists," Hunt said. "Because the scandal reaches Afghanistan [37 prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are being investigated] …what the government is doing is damage control and it could hurt the war on terrorism if we overcontrol it."
Defense: No Increased Pressure to Empty Prisons
The Defense Department, in concert with the CIA and departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, recently completed rules that could possibly spring some of the Guantanamo Bay detainees from detention if they can prove they no longer present a threat to the United States. There are currently 595 enemy combatants being held there.
But the Pentagon denied that the revised process has anything to do with the Abu Ghraib scandal and the increased focus on prisoner treatment.
"There are individuals and organizations who have been advocating for the release of Gitmo detainees probably from Day 1 but I would not say there's additional pressure," a Defense Department spokesman told Foxnews.com, noting that 147 detainees have left that prison since 2002.
"We've been saying all along that we don't want to hold people down there for no good reason or indefinitely," the spokesman said, adding releases often come when a detainee is turned over to his or her country of residence or if it's proven they are no longer a threat to the United States or no longer have any intelligence value.
It's up to the parent country whether the detainee faces prosecution there.
In its annual report that was recently released, Amnesty International cites the hundreds of foreign nationals who remain in indefinite detention without charge or trial in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay.
But as to the prospect of inadvertently releasing bad guys from that prison, the spokesman said, "It is, of course, a significant concern of the Department of Defense. The secretary has acknowledged that we've already found at least one individual … who's been released and is back to fighting against us and the coalition."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in March said it's the United States' first choice to get detainees back to their home countries to "manage them in a way that is in the best interests of people who care about the global War on Terror."
"Now, have we made a mistake? Yeah," Rumsfeld said. "And no one likes to make mistakes, but this process made a judgment and it's not easy … but we're doing it honorably, we're doing it legally, and let's just hope and pray that we don't let people loose that do go back and become terrorists."