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How detainees were "disappeared into...
The CIA's secret prisons

November 11, 2005 | Page 12

NICOLE COLSON reports on revelations that the Bush administration and the CIA run a secret prison system.

THE CIA has been exposed for running a network of secret overseas prisons.

Human rights organizations have reported before that, since September 11, detainees who are considered high-value targets by U.S. intelligence officials have been routinely "disappeared" into overseas prisons--thought to be run by countries allied with the U.S. But last week, new evidence of just how widespread the practice is came to light.

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest revealed that the CIA itself has been operating a network of secret prisons that includes at least one former Soviet-era compound. According to the Post, detainees continue to be sent to these so-called "black sites," located, at various times, in at least eight countries--including Thailand, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and several unspecified Eastern European nations.

Approximately 30 of these "ghost detainees"--the ones considered major terrorism suspects--remain in the CIA-run prisons, according to the Post. "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," reported the Post.

In these secret gulags, CIA interrogators are allowed to use "enhanced interrogation techniques"--which include "water-boarding," in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and repeatedly dunked underwater until they think they are drowning, as well as "stress positions," light and noise bombardment, and sleep deprivation.

Another 70 or more detainees who the government believes have less direct involvement with terrorism, and therefore less "intelligence value," have been "outsourced" to intelligence services in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan and other countries, in a procedure known as "extraordinary rendition." The CIA gives financial assistance--and sometimes direction--to these prisons, where detainees almost certainly face torture at the hands of security forces like Egypt's Mukhabarat.

To date, Canada, Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands have opened inquiries into alleged CIA operations that secretly captured their citizens or legal residents and sent them to prisons in other countries to undergo interrogation.

The stories of abuse and torture described by organizations such as Human Rights Watch could come from the heyday of the dictatorship of Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet, or any number of military regimes around the globe.

"The prisoner was taken away in the middle of the night 19 months ago," reads one Human Rights Watch report. "He was hooded and brought to an undisclosed location where he has not been heard of since. Interrogators reportedly used graduated levels of force on the prisoner, including the 'water-boarding' technique...His 7- and 9-year-old sons were also picked up, presumably to induce him to talk."

While abuse and indefinite detention of prisoners at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is widely known, the CIA's network of covert prisons--and the detainees who have been disappeared into them--have gone largely unreported by the media until now.

But make no mistake: the policy comes straight from the top of the Bush administration. In response to a CIA request for guidance, for example, an August 2002 Justice Department memo said that torturing al-Qaeda detainees "may be justified," and that international laws against torture "may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations" conducted in the war on terrorism.

The CIA policy of secret prisons seems to have evolved during the initial days following September 11, 2001. A week later, Bush signed an order giving the CIA sweeping powers to kill, capture or detain members of al-Qaeda anywhere in the world. This was seen as a green light by the CIA--and the black-site program was approved by a small circle of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials.

Initially, CIA officials looked "for a setting like Alcatraz Island," according to the Post, and considered a remote island in Zambia as a possibility. But when that plan was rejected, the CIA began rendering terrorism suspects to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia--whose security forces have a well-documented history of using torture.

As more prisoners were captured during the war in Afghanistan, the CIA was faced with a dilemma. They had too many prisoners to send to other countries to do the dirty work for them. That, apparently, is when one of the first black sites was set up--in an abandoned brick factory outside of Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the "Salt Pit," as it was known, in November 2002, a CIA 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 later froze to death, officials told the Post.

Beginning in 2002, the CIA brokered deals with other countries to establish black-site prisons. One site in Thailand was closed after its existence was confirmed in the media, and Thai officials insisted it be shut down. The CIA has also apparently abandoned its small detention center at Guantánamo Bay--worried by the implications of rulings by U.S. courts that granted detainees some legal rights.

Today, the Bush administration and the CIA quietly justify the existence of these black sites as necessary to prevent "another September 11." But as the "war on terror" has grown in scope, the CIA has captured a number of people who almost certainly have no link to terrorism.

Now, coming on the heels of the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the White House leak scandal, revelations about the scope of the CIA "disappearing" prisoners around the globe are causing more embarrassment for the administration.

Still, a section of the administration--led by Dick Cheney--continues to fight for the right of the CIA to torture with impunity. Last month, the Senate approved a rule prohibiting the military's use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in U.S. government custody.

Not only has Bush threatened to veto the bill, but late last month, Cheney, along with CIA Director Porter Goss, met with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the bill's sponsor, to strong-arm him into accepting a proposal that would exempt the CIA "if the president determines that such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that the president has "made our position very clear: We do not condone torture, nor would he ever authorize the use of torture." But by denying detainees the right to protection under the Geneva Conventions and allowing the CIA's black site operation to flourish, the Bush administration has condoned torture and inhumane treatment of detainees, ever since September 11.

As the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere, recently put it in a statement, "Our clients who have been released from Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib describe a deliberate program of abuse. Other CCR clients have been shipped off by our government to countries like Syria and Egypt to be interrogated under torture...

"The Bush administration has brought us down to a moral level unimaginable since the end of World War II, despite the fact that experts in interrogation know that torture produces bad intelligence and false confessions and only fans the flames of hatred the world over and puts our own troops in danger. People like Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales must be held accountable for the dangerous policies they have put in place, but they will never investigate themselves."

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