CIA running secret foreign prison network

(Oh come on, you think I’d forget the biggest story of the month? I was busy.)

For at least four years, the Central Intelligence Agency has been operating a network of secret prisons overseas, according to sources familiar with the prison network.

The network included a “Soviet-era facility in eastern Europe,” as well as a small space at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and up to eight other countries that in the past included Thailand and Afghanistan.

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. — Washington Post

While the Post had obtained the locations of the prisons currently in the network, it didn’t publish them, for national security reasons.

You really should go read the entire article, but here are some choice cuts:

Who’s in these 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, 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.” 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 intelligence officials.

Where did this plan originate?

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 tried.

“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 leaders 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 assassination.

“We’d probably shoot ourselves,” another former senior CIA official said.

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.

Oh, what a great country we live in!

The Modern American comments, “Secret prisons are tools for Third World dictators, not the USA.”

Amen.

Someone tell me exactly why these “terrorists” can’t be given a fair trial right here in the good old U.S.A. Someone tell me exactly why they aren’t deserving of the natural rights that Thomas Jefferson said we all had as a virtue of being born? Someone tell me how this action makes the U.S. any better than a banana republic, where one might not even get a trial at all, before being executed.

Here’s a hint, my fellow Americans. If they do it to foreigners, they will eventually do it to citizens. Watch and see. The way the U.S. treats these people frightens me, for it means that’s the way the U.S. is going to treat its own citizens soon enough. The fair trial is already on its way into the dustbin of history; this is just another step along the way.