CIA holds terror suspects in secret prisons
Debate grows within agency about legality, morality of approach
By Dana Priest
Post" -- -- The CIA has been hiding and
interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda 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
Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former
intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.
The hidden global internment network is a central element in the
CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. It depends on the cooperation
of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic
information about the system secret from the public, foreign
officials and 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 officials
in the United States 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 with them, or how decisions are made about whether they
should be detained or for how long.
While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports
and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the
abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay,
the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites.
To do so, say officials familiar with the program, 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 widespread 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 Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked Congress
to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90
senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any
prisoner in U.S. custody.
Although the CIA will not acknowledge details of its system,
intelligence officials defend the agency's approach, arguing that
the successful defense of the country requires that the agency be
empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long
as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the U.S. legal
system or even by the military tribunals established for prisoners
held at Guantanamo Bay.
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.
The secret detention system was conceived in the chaotic and anxious
first months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the working
assumption was that a second strike was imminent.
Since then, the arrangement 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.
Mid-level and senior CIA officers began arguing two years ago that
the system was unsustainable and diverted the agency from its unique
"We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand
strategy," said one former senior intelligence officer who is
familiar with the program but not the location of the prisons.
"Everything was very reactive. That's how you get to a situation
where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don't
say, 'What are we going to do with them afterwards?' "
It is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in such 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 that the CIA's internment practices also
would be considered illegal under the laws of several host
countries, where detainees have rights to have a lawyer or to mount
a defense against allegations 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 in the alleged abuse. Given the secrecy surrounding CIA
detentions, such accusations have heightened concerns among foreign
governments and human rights groups about CIA detention and
The contours of the CIA's detention program have emerged in bits and
pieces over the past two years. 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 figure, a rough estimate based
on information from sources who said their knowledge of the numbers
was incomplete, does not include prisoners picked up in Iraq.
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 Guantanamo Bay -- were closed in 2003 and 2004,
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." While the first-tier black sites are run by CIA
officers, 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 Qaeda 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
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 on the
The Eastern European countries that the CIA has persuaded to hide al
Qaeda 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
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 plan was to
bring bin Laden and his top associates into the U.S. justice system
for trial or to send them to foreign countries where they would be
‘Against the culture’
"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, or 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda leadership would be
worth keeping alive to interrogate about their network and other
plots. Some officers worried that the CIA would not be very adept at
"We'd probably shoot ourselves," another former senior CIA official
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. Findings must not
break U.S. law and are reviewed and approved by CIA, Justice
Department and White House legal advisers.
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 Qaeda 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 article 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.
Among the first steps was to figure out where the CIA could secretly
hold the captives. One early idea was to keep them on ships in
international waters, but that was discarded for security and
CIA officers also searched for a setting like Alcatraz Island. They
considered the virtually unvisited islands in Lake Kariba in Zambia,
which were edged with craggy cliffs and covered in woods. But poor
sanitary conditions could easily lead to fatal diseases, they
decided, and besides, they wondered, could the Zambians be trusted
with such a secret?
Still 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,
which was surrounded with a triple perimeter of concertina-wire
fencing. Most prisoners were left in the hands of the Northern
Alliance, U.S.-supported opposition forces who were fighting the
"I remember asking: What are we going to do with these people?" said
a senior CIA officer. "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
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,
tens of millions of dollars to establish a larger, long-term system
in Afghanistan, parts of which would be used for CIA prisoners.
The largest CIA prison in Afghanistan was code-named the Salt Pit.
It was also 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 in the death.
The Salt Pit was protected by surveillance cameras and tough Afghan
guards, but the road leading to it was not safe to travel and the
jail was eventually moved inside Bagram Air Base. It has since been
relocated off the base.
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. An estimated $100 million was
tucked inside the classified annex of the first supplemental
Then the CIA captured its first big detainee, in March 28, 2002.
Pakistani forces took Abu Zubaida, al Qaeda's operations chief, into
custody and the CIA whisked him to the new black site in Thailand,
which included underground interrogation cells, said several former
and current intelligence officials. Six months later, Sept. 11
planner Ramzi Binalshibh was also captured in Pakistan and flown to
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 elsewhere, according to former government
officials involved in the matter. Work between the two countries on
counterterrorism has been lukewarm ever since.
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
Thailand was closed, and sometime in 2004 the CIA decided it had to
give up its small site at Guantanamo Bay. The CIA had planned to
convert that 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 would soon 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 Counterterrorist Center at Langley.
Bigger group of detainees
The CIA program's original scope was to hide and interrogate the two
dozen or so al Qaeda leaders believed to be directly responsible for
the Sept. 11 attacks, or who posed an imminent threat, or had
knowledge of the larger al Qaeda 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
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.
Meanwhile, the debate over the wisdom of the program continues among
CIA officers, some of whom also argue that the secrecy surrounding
the program is not sustainable.
"It's just a horrible burden," said the intelligence official.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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