Secret prison system detains high-level terrorism suspects
The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaida captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaida captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement.
The secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.
Although the CIA will not acknowledge details of its system, intelligence officials defend the approach, arguing that the successful defense of the country requires that suspected terrorists be held and interrogated for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the U.S. legal system or even by military tribunals.
The secret-detention system was conceived in the chaotic, anxious first months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the working assumption was that a second strike was imminent.
The arrangement since has been increasingly debated within the CIA, where considerable concern lingers about the legality, morality and practicality of holding even unrepentant terrorists in such isolation and secrecy, perhaps for the duration of their lives. Midlevel and senior CIA officers began arguing two years ago that the system was unsustainable and diverted the agency from its espionage mission.
The network depends on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic information about the system secret, even from nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions.
The existence and locations of the facilities — referred to as "black sites" in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents — are known to only a handful of U.S. officials and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.
The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed or how decisions are made about whether prisoners should be detained or for how long.
The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.
While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantánamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, officials say, could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.
But the revelations of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. military — which operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress — have increased concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human-rights groups about the opaque CIA system. Those concerns escalated last month, when Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation, endorsed by 90 senators, that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody.
It is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas, according to several former and current intelligence officials and other U.S. government officials. Legal experts and intelligence officials said the CIA's internment practices also would be considered illegal in several host countries, where detainees have rights to have a lawyer or to mount a defense against charges of wrongdoing.
Host countries have signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as has the United States. Yet CIA interrogators in the overseas sites are permitted to use the CIA's approved "enhanced interrogation techniques," some of which are prohibited by the U.N. convention and by U.S. military law. They include tactics such as "waterboarding," in which a prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning.
Some detainees apprehended by the CIA and transferred to foreign intelligence agencies have alleged after their release that they were tortured, although it is unclear whether CIA personnel played a role.
Parliaments in Canada, Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands have opened inquiries into alleged CIA operations that secretly captured their citizens or legal residents and transferred them to the agency's prisons.
More than 100 suspected terrorists have been sent by the CIA into the covert system, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials and foreign sources. This rough estimate, based on information from sources who said their knowledge of the numbers was incomplete, does not include prisoners picked up in Iraq.
Two tiers of detainees
The detainees break down roughly into two classes, the sources said.
About 30 are considered major terrorism suspects and have been held under the highest level of secrecy at black sites financed by the CIA and managed by agency personnel, including those in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, according to current and former intelligence officers and two other U.S. government officials. Two locations in this category — in Thailand and on the grounds of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay — were closed in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
A second tier — which these sources believe includes more than 70 detainees — is a group considered less important, with less direct involvement in terrorism and having limited intelligence value. These prisoners, some of whom were originally taken to black sites, are delivered to intelligence services in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan and other countries, a process sometimes known as "rendition." The jails in these countries are operated by the host nations, with CIA financial assistance and, sometimes, direction.
Morocco, Egypt and Jordan have said that they do not torture detainees, although years of State Department human-rights reports accuse all three of chronic prisoner abuse.
The top 30 al-Qaida prisoners exist in complete isolation from the outside world. Kept in dark, sometimes underground cells, they have no recognized legal rights, and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with or even see them, or to otherwise verify their well-being, said current and former and U.S. and foreign government and intelligence officials.
Most of the facilities were built and are maintained with congressionally appropriated funds, but the White House has refused to allow the CIA to brief anyone except the chairman and vice chairman of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
The Eastern European countries that the CIA has persuaded to hide al-Qaida captives are democracies that have embraced the rule of law and individual rights after decades of Soviet domination. Each has been trying to cleanse its intelligence services of operatives who have worked on behalf of others — mainly Russia and organized crime.
Origins of the black sites
The idea of holding terrorists outside the U.S. legal system was not under consideration before Sept. 11, 2001, not even for Osama bin Laden, according to former government officials.
"The issue of detaining and interrogating people was never, ever discussed," said a former senior intelligence officer who worked in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC) during that period. "It was against the culture, and they believed information was best gleaned by other means."
On the day of the attacks, the CIA already had a list of what it called "high-value targets" from the al-Qaida structure, and as the World Trade Center and Pentagon attack plots were unraveled, more names were added to the list. The question of what to do with these people surfaced quickly.
The CTC's chief of operations argued for creating hit teams of case officers and CIA paramilitaries that would covertly infiltrate countries in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe to assassinate people on the list, one by one.
But many CIA officers believed that the al-Qaida leadership would be worth keeping alive to interrogate about their network and other plots.
The agency set up prisons under its covert action authority. Under U.S. law, only the president can authorize a covert action, by signing a document called a presidential finding.
Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush signed a sweeping finding that gave the CIA broad authorization to disrupt terrorist activity, including permission to kill, capture and detain members of al-Qaida anywhere in the world.
It could not be determined whether Bush approved a separate finding for the black-sites program, but the consensus among current and former intelligence and other government officials interviewed for this story is that he did not have to. Rather, they believe that the CIA general counsel's office acted within the parameters of the Sept. 17 finding. The black-site program was approved by a small circle of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials, according to several former and current U.S. government and intelligence officials.
Deals with 2 countries
One early idea was to keep captives on ships in international waters, but that was discarded for security and logistics reasons.
CIA officers also searched for a setting such as Alcatraz Island. They considered virtually unvisited islands in Lake Kariba in Zambia, which were edged with craggy cliffs and covered in woods. But poor sanitary conditions easily could lead to fatal diseases, they decided, and besides, they wondered, could Zambians be trusted?
Without a long-term solution, the CIA began sending suspects it captured in the first month or so after Sept. 11 to its longtime partners, the intelligence services of Egypt and Jordan.
A month later, the CIA found itself with hundreds of prisoners who were captured on battlefields in Afghanistan. A short-term solution was improvised. The agency shoved its highest-value prisoners into metal shipping containers set up on a corner of the Bagram Air Base.
"I remember asking: What are we going to do with these people?" a senior CIA officer said. "I kept saying, where's the help? We've got to bring in some help. We can't be jailers — our job is to find Osama."
Then came grisly reports, in the winter of 2001, that prisoners kept by allied Afghan generals in cargo containers had died of asphyxiation. The CIA asked Congress for, and was quickly granted, money to establish a larger, long-term system in Afghanistan.
The largest CIA prison in Afghanistan was code-named the Salt Pit. It also was the CIA's substation and was first housed in an old brick factory outside Kabul. In November 2002, an inexperienced CIA case officer allegedly ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets. He froze to death, according to four U.S. government officials. The CIA officer has not been charged.
By mid-2002, the CIA had worked out secret black-site deals with two countries, including Thailand and one Eastern European nation, current and former officials said.
The CIA then captured its first big detainee, on March 28, 2002. Pakistani forces took Abu Zubaida, al-Qaida's operations chief, into custody and the CIA whisked him to the new black site in Thailand, said several former and current intelligence officials. Six months later, Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh also was captured in Pakistan and flown to Thailand.
But after published reports revealed the existence of the site in June 2003, Thai officials insisted the CIA shut it down, and the two terrorists were moved, according to former government officials.
In late 2002 or early 2003, the CIA brokered deals with other countries to establish black-site prisons. One of these sites — which sources said they believed to be the CIA's biggest facility now — became particularly important when the agency realized it would have a growing number of prisoners and a shrinking number of prisons.
The CIA decided sometime in 2004 that it had to give up its small site at Guantánamo Bay, which it had planned to convert into a state-of-the-art facility, operated independently of the military. The CIA pulled out when U.S. courts began to exercise greater control over the military detainees, and agency officials feared judges soon would extend the same type of supervision over their detainees.
In hindsight, say some former and current intelligence officials, the CIA's problems were exacerbated by another decision made within the CTC.
The CIA program's original scope was to hide and interrogate the two dozen or so al-Qaida leaders believed to be directly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, or who posed an imminent threat, or had knowledge of the larger al-Qaida network. But as the volume of leads pouring into the CTC from abroad increased, and the capacity of its paramilitary group to seize suspects grew, the CIA began apprehending more people whose intelligence value and links to terrorism were less certain, according to four current and former officials.
The original standard for consigning suspects to the invisible universe was lowered or ignored, they said. "They've got many, many more who don't reach any threshold," one intelligence official said.
Several former and current intelligence officials, as well as several other U.S. government officials with knowledge of the program, express frustration that the White House and the leaders of the intelligence community have not made it a priority to decide whether the secret internment program should continue in its current form, or be replaced by some other approach.
"It's just a horrible burden," one intelligence official said.
Washington Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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