The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed today that it has met the 14 so-called ''high-value'' detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who include alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
A 12-member Red Cross delegation is still on the remote base in southeast Cuba, still working on gathering detainee notes and messages home -- but has interviewed 454 international U.S.-held captives, said Simon Schorno, an ICRC spokesman.
''We have seen the 14 as of today,'' said Schorno, speaking from Washington, D.C., following what he called a premature leak by the Pentagon of the meeting with Mohammed and other former CIA held captives.
''We're confirming having visited and registered the 14 detainees, and provided them with the means to exchange Red Cross messages with their families,'' he added.
He declined to say which, if any, of the 14 detainees had used the format to write home, probably for the first time since they were captured by the CIA and taken to so-called ''black sites'' somewhere overseas for U.S. interrogation.
President Bush revealed to the world on Sept. 6 that the United States had held the 14 men at secret offshore CIA detention spots, and had over Labor Day had them transferred to military custody at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
Their private meetings with Red Cross delegates, who included a doctor and translators, are not monitored by the military, Schorno said.
The ''high value detainees'' include Mohammed, whom the president referred to by his CIA nickname, ''KSM,'' as well as other men who the United States claims were architects of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole on Yemen's coast and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Their health conditions are not known after as much as four years of secret CIA captivity. Schorno deflected a question on whether the Red Cross observed signs that the men had been tortured with this: ``The ICRC does not comment publicly on current or past circumstances of detention or treatment of detainees.''
Instead, the delegates relay their concerns about conditions secretly to the country holding prisoners. The Swiss based organization first got access to the prison soon after the detention center opened in Jan. 2002, and they have never commented publicly on the conditions at the base in southeast Cuba.
But the 14 men had been held in secret U.S.-controlled locations -- off the books and out of reach of the International Red Cross, which under the Geneva Conventions has long been responsible for inspecting prisons the world over and verifying that prisoners of war are treated humanely and don't disappear while in custody.
The Pentagon told media in Washington about the completed Red Cross interviews on the same day that it released a formal announcement that the U.S. had sent away 17 captives from the base -- 16 to Afghanistan and another to Morocco.
It did not name the men, but said they had been freed after a series of internal reviews and diplomatic dialogue with their native countries.
Given the ICRC figure of 454 detainees interviewed, minus the 17 unnamed captives the Pentagon said it released Thursday, that left the prison population there at 437.
The Pentagon statement put the number of detainees at ``approximately 440.''
At Guantánamo, Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand called the Red Cross consultations ''meaningful, useful and confidential'' -- meaning he would not spell out any criticisms, if any, the international relief agency made of the captives' conditions.
Durand said the men are entitled to the same health care as U.S. forces on overseas duty.
''As with all other detainees they receive adequate food, shelter, and clothing. They are afforded the opportunity to worship and have access to the Koran in their native language and other prayer accessories,'' Durand said in a statement.
"Consistent with established policies, they are allowed to send and receive mail.''
Red Cross officials arrived on the remote base in southeast Cuba about two weeks ago, after Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the Southern Command, said former CIA-held captives were undergoing a month-long orientation.
They are theoretically to face internal U.S. military reviews to see if they meet Bush administration definitions of ''enemy combatants,'' and potentially future trial by U.S. military tribunal.
Still unclear is when precisely the men now cast as ''the worst of the worst'' of the Guantánamo population might face the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which had been open to media coverage in the past.
If the Pentagon provides access similar to earlier hearings, reporters will get the first glimpse of Mohammed, Ramzi Bin al Shibh, and others who were publicly identified by the president as captives at Guantánamo as part of a policy speech on evolving U.S. detention policy.
Senior Defense and Justice Department officials had earlier said reviews would be held within three months of the arrival of the men. That means they should be complete by Christmas.