Investigation: The CIA's secret prisons

The acknowledgement of a global network of 'black sites' has revealed the existence of a sinister two-tier system of interrogation

Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 10 September 2006 00:00

Labor Day, the long weekend holiday that marks the end of summer, is usually the quietest of times in America and its various small corners around the world. Not so, however, last Monday at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 445 terrorist suspects are held.

Some time that morning, a plane landed at the base. Shackled and in hoods, 14 figures disembarked, the latest detainees at a camp that for years has been at the centre of international controversy. In fact, however, they were veterans of a prison system that had caused, if possible, even greater outrage: the network of secret camps operated by the CIA outside the US, where the most ruthless interrogation practices were applied in the name of extracting information from America's deadliest foes in President Bush's "war on terror".

In his national televised address from the White House last Wednesday, just five days before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush for the first time acknowledged the existence of these "black sites" inhabited by "ghost" prisoners beyond the reach of any authority, whether Congress, the Red Cross or US and international law.

According to officials and reports here, there were eight camps in all. Among the locations were Afghanistan, Qatar, Thailand, the Indian island base of Diego Garcia (leased by the US from Britain) as well as Poland and Romania. The system was set up at the start of 2002. In the four and a half years since, some 100 inmates have passed through the network.

These were no ordinary prisoners, however. They were the highest-value targets - terror kingpins who, the CIA believed, possessed information about ongoing terrorist plots. To obtain this information, all means were considered justified. Some inmates were kept for a period in the camps and then - their value to the Americans exhausted - sent on under the practice known as "rendition" to friendly countries, Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt among them, where they faced equally brutal treatment, if not worse. Others, it is believed, were sent on to Guantanamo. A few, however, stayed.

The 14 new inmates at Guantanamo include the most famous al-Qa'ida captives: among them Abu Zubaydah, a key coordinator of the organisation, seized in Pakistan in March 2002; Ramzi Binalshibh, a facilitator for 9/11; and the main planner of the attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. In the past few days, more details have become available of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques to which these prisoners were subjected.

A Justice Department memo of August 2002 gives a flavour, with its conclusion that methods stopping just short of those causing pain comparable to "organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death" were legally permissible. In practice these techniques included practices such as "waterboarding" or simulated drowning, painful slapping and pummelling, extreme isolation, as well as sleep deprivation and intense noise or light bombardment.

Most people would conclude that these amount to torture. However Mr Bush insisted anew that the US did not engage in torture. Instead he described the methods in Orwellian terms, as an "alternative set of procedures" that were deemed to be lawful.

That legal determination, however, was provided by the eminently pliant Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel and now Attorney-General, and by hardline Justice Department lawyers who believed that the President, as commander-in-chief, could do as he pleased in time of war, on the ancient principle of salus populi suprema lex - loosely translated as, anything goes when it comes to national security. Five years on, after a period in which there has been no further terrorist attack on US soil, that danger had subsided somewhat. Hence the decision to empty the camps and sent inmates to Guantanamo for trial.

But mysteries remain. First, has the CIA really shut down the "black sites"? Last December, the Human Rights Watch organisation published a list of 26 people it believed were in this system of camps; 13 of them were among those now being moved to Guantanamo. But the other 13 it says it cannot account for.

Then there is the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, one of the first high-level suspects placed in CIA custody and reputedly the source of the claims - advanced by Colin Powell at the UN in 2003 in justification of the Iraq invasion - that Saddam Hussein had links with al-Qa'ida. That suggestion was again debunked last Friday by a damning Senate Intelligence Committee report. Al-Libi's claim, understood to have been extracted while he was being tortured by Egyptian interrogators, almost certainly added to the doubts about the value of information gained in such circumstances.

Hours before Mr Bush spoke on Wednesday, the Pentagon issued an updated Army Field Manual, outlawing a host of interrogation techniques, including not only waterboarding, but others such as sexual humiliation and intimidation by dogs, made infamous by Abu Ghraib. The impression is that the restrictions apply to the CIA as well. But do they?

The camps may be empty, but the system could be re-activated at any moment in the event of a new onslaught. Last week Mr Bush sent a bill to Congress, setting out rules for new military commissions to try Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh and the rest, after the Supreme Court in June rejected the tribunals previously set in place by the Pentagon.

But the measure also provides for a two-tier system of detention that would allow the CIA far greater latitude than the military. As Mr Bush put it last week, "having a CIA programme for questioning terrorists will continue to be crucial to getting life-saving information". Or, to put it another way, the doctrine of what Vice-President Dick Cheney calls "working the dark side" is still alive and well.

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