Was there a covert CIA prison system?

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.