Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons
Debate Is Growing Within Agency About Legality and Morality of Overseas System Set Up After 9/11
By Dana Priest
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
But the revelations of widespread prisoner
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
The secret detention system was conceived
in the chaotic and anxious first months after the
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 espionage mission.
"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
Host countries have signed the U.N.
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as has the
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 interrogation practices.
The contours of the CIA's detention
program have emerged in bits and pieces over the past two years. Parliaments in
More than 100 suspected terrorists have
been sent by the CIA into the covert system, according to current and former
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
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
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
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 House and Senate intelligence committees' chairmen and vice chairmen on the program's generalities.
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
Origins of the Black Sites
The idea of holding terrorists outside the
"The issue of detaining and
interrogating people was never, ever discussed," said a former senior
intelligence officer who worked in the CIA's
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
The CTC's chief of operations argued for
creating hit teams of case officers and CIA paramilitaries that would covertly
infiltrate countries in the
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
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
Deals With 2 Countries
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 logistics reasons.
CIA officers also searched for a setting
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
A month later, the CIA found itself with
hundreds of prisoners who were captured on battlefields in
"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 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, tens of millions of dollars to establish a larger, long-term
The largest CIA prison in
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
Then the CIA captured its first big
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 prisons.
In hindsight, say some former and current
intelligence officials, the CIA's problems were exacerbated by another decision
made within the
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 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
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.