Was there a covert CIA prison system?

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA was granted wide powers to capture, interrogate and kill terror suspects.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA was granted wide powers to capture, interrogate and kill terror suspects.
Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images

After the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) kicked into high gear. It was widely assumed that more attacks would soon follow [source: Washington Post]. To maintain any hope of thwarting successive attacks, the CIA needed information from the people who had planned and carried out Sept. 11 and other attacks: al-Qaida.

In order to grant the CIA the authority to fight this new war on terror, President George W. Bush signed a finding -- a classified presidential order -- on Sept. 17, 2001 [source: Washington Post]. This order increased CIA-wide powers to capture terrorists. In short order, members of al-Qaida began to "disappear" from locations around the world. One suspected al-Qaida member was kidnapped from a hospital in Somalia; another was invited to a fictional fundraiser in Germany, where he was taken into custody [source: The Observer]. The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of hundreds of other people were not reported. Some people assumed that the CIA had a hand in the mysterious whereabouts of some enemy combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as others around the world. If that was the case, where were these people being taken?

After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, detention facilities were set up in those nations to house prisoners of war. In 2002, a separate detention facility was established in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But not all of the people who had been captured by the U.S. military could be accounted for.

It wasn't until November 2005 that the Washington Post broke the news that the CIA had secret prisons around the globe where "high-value targets" in the War on Terror were being held. Successive reports followed the first story, and a clearer picture emerged of an underground network run by the CIA that circumvented international and U.S. laws.

Read about the CIA's covert prison system and how it was exposed on the next page.

Extraordinary Rendition

German-born Turk Murat Kurnaz testifies to a European inquiry into CIA renditions in 2006 about his abduction by CIA operatives in Pakistan in 2002 and his rendition to Guantanamo Bay.
German-born Turk Murat Kurnaz testifies to a European inquiry into CIA renditions in 2006 about his abduction by CIA operatives in Pakistan in 2002 and his rendition to Guantanamo Bay.
Gerard Cerles/AFP/Getty Images

Because the events of Sept. 11 underscored the need for accurate information, the CIA found itself in a quandary: How would it respond to this need? The CIA's counterterrorism wing could locate suspects who had information. Its paramilitary wing could apprehend the suspects. But it didn't have a place to actually interrogate any of the captured suspects.

At first, the CIA dealt with this problem through the method of extraordinary rendition -- essentially abducting an individual and handing the person over to authorities (usually a foreign intelligence service). From there, the CIA could oversee interrogation or provide a list of questions to be passed along to interrogators [source: Time].

Countries that have received rendered targets from the CIA include Azerbaijan, Oman, Jordan and Morocco [source: The Observer]. Others, including Syria, Egypt and Algeria, have been criticized for using torture during interrogation in the past [source: Human Rights Watch]. The CIA is thought to have chosen these countries for rendition in cases where torture may produce information. Because any American's involvement in torture is against U.S. law, the CIA needed these suspects on foreign turf -- and needed non-Americans to extract the information [source: ABC News].

Rendition itself is illegal: It often involves abducting citizens of democratic nations and delivering them to other nations -- including countries with which they have no affiliation. Once in custody, these suspects have no contact with the outside world. Their interrogations may include torture. They are denied counsel, aren't formally charged in a court and are denied habeas corpus (a person's right to challenge the legality of his or her imprisonment) [source: The Observer]. The International Committee of the Red Cross -- the group that ensures captured enemy combatants are being treated within the standards established by the Geneva Convention -- were denied access to check on inmates that had been rendered by the CIA [source: The Guardian]. Because of their often elusive status, rendered individuals have been referred to as "ghost prisoners" [source: Deutsche Welle].

Extraordinary rendition appears to have been used by the CIA as recently as mid-2007. Reports of people who claim to have been kept at secret prisons in Ethiopia say they interacted with Americans at these prisons. These prisoners included nationals from Western countries, including Canada and the United States [source: MSNBC].

In addition to practicing extraordinary rendition, in 2002, the United States also set up its own secret, CIA-operated prisons. This decision followed the deaths of several detainees left in the hands of Afghan forces at what amounted to the CIA's first secret prison, located at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Many of these suspects died of asphyxiation while kept in cargo containers on the base [source: Washington Post]. 

But the isolated, high-security type of prison the CIA needed would require utter secrecy. American law prohibits such secret prisons. Beginning in 2002, the CIA began considering alternate locations around the world [source: Washington Post]. The agency settled on Thailand. It would be the first of several of what classified documents refer to as black sites [source: Washington Post].

Read about these black sites and the network that connected them on the next page.

Black Sites

In a 2006 visit to Atlanta, President George W. Bush (with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue) affirmed the existence of secret prisons.
In a 2006 visit to Atlanta, President George W. Bush (with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue) affirmed the existence of secret prisons.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The first black site established by the CIA following the Sept. 11 attacks was located in Thailand. Its first detainee was a top al-Qaida operative, Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in a shoot-out in Pakistan. Zubuydah suffered a gunshot wound and was treated for his injury. Following his recovery, he was subjected to interrogation methods considered torture under U.S. and international law (such as beatings, long periods of standing and water boarding). But he was also reported to have been treated well. Zubuydah was fed breakfast, lunch and dinner, including baked chicken and candy bars -- specifically, Kit-Kats [source: ABC News].

Zubaydah was soon joined by fellow al-Qaida members, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks [source: BBC]. But accusations that the United States was illegally detaining terror suspects at secret prisons in Thailand caused the Thai government to close the CIA-run facility in 2003. The following year, another black site at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was closed [source: Washington Post].

But the CIA still had terror suspects on their hands. Other sites, located in Afghanistan, Romania and Poland were established. These black sites had code names like Salt Pit and Bright Light [source: Risen]. At these secret prisons, an investigation by the Council of Europe found that the CIA subjected detainees to enhanced interrogation techniques -- including water boarding [source: The Guardian]. In one case, a detainee held at a black site in Afghanistan froze to death under CIA supervision [source: Washington Post]. In another, nine of 10 suspects held at secret prisons in Romania and Poland were subjected to water boarding [source: ABC News].

The CIA divided terror suspects into two classifications: high value and lesser value. The high value targets were kept in the secret prisons. Lesser value targets were rendered to foreign countries or sent to Guantanamo Bay [source: Washington Post]. The CIA's secret prisons were reportedly established in collusion with the governments where the black sites were located. Only a handful of people in the American and foreign governments and intelligence agencies were aware the prisons existed [source: Washington Post].

The CIA's secret prison network still left a paper trail, however. Flight manifests clued in human rights groups investigating allegations of the existence of secret, CIA-operated prisons -- ultimately, they discovered the network. By tracing the movement of these flights and the stated nationalities of the passengers on the flights' manifests, human rights groups began to uncover the CIA's secret prison network. The CIA chartered airline flights and private planes to move the detainees. Other flights were conducted on planes registered to what turned out to be CIA dummy companies [source: Amnesty International].

One CIA-chartered flight was found to have departed Afghanistan and stopped in Poland, Romania and Morocco before arriving in Guantanamo Bay [source: Deutsche Welle]. Further investigation found that NATO-member countries had signed a waiver in 2001 that allowed private U.S. planes to fly in the nations' airspace [source: The Guardian].

In 2005, in the face of international pressure, the European black sites were closed. Inmates were transferred to another secret prison in North Africa [source: ABC News]. The following year, making the first official acknowledgement that the sites had ever existed, President George W. Bush announced that all of the secret prisons had been shut down and the detainees transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Bush justified the prisons, saying that suspects had not been tortured and that their secret detainment had helped saved lives [source: BBC].

For more information on the CIA and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Burke, Jason. "Secret world of U.S. jails." The Observer. June 13, 2004. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/jun/13/usa.terrorism
  • Grey, Stephen. "CIA ran secret prisons for detainees in Europe, says inquiry." The Guardian. June 8, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jun/08/usa.uknews4/print
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  • Risen, James. "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Adminstration." Simon and Schuster. 2006. http://books.google.com/books?id=r5dCFeTbMY4C&pg=PA30&lpg=PA30&dq=bright+light+secret+prisons&source=web&ots=Bqmss8TVDO&sig=u69FI7myefK_REGE1CUy0xWmON0&hl=en
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