Disappearing Prisoners

Are they dead? Are they alive? Where is the media? Does anybody out there care?

In a front-page article December 26, 2002, The Washington Post revealed that prisoners at a CIA interrogation center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan were being subjected to abuses that veered on torture:

"The picture that emerges is of a brass-knuckled quest for information . . . in which the traditional lines between right and wrong, legal and inhumane, are evolving and blurred."

The media largely ignored the story, with the notable exceptions of The Economist and the indispensable Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker.


What was happening at Bagram Air Base soon disappeared from the news, but the revelations of our repellent abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib interrogation cells, where Saddam Hussein's torturers had previously operated, raised widespread questions about American adherence to the Geneva Conventions and other international human rights standards. The first whistle-blower was a soldier, specialist Joseph Darby: "I didn't want to see any more prisoners being abused, because I knew it was wrong."

However, in the rush of reports, the CIA and its then leader, George Tenet, were hardly mentioned. But a startling probe on ABC's Nightline on May 13, 2004, "The Disappeared," focused on super-secret CIA interrogation operations overseas, about which ABC News' Chris Bury said:

"We don't know where they are being held. We don't know how many of them there are. We don't know what the rules are."

This prison system is "so secret that its very existence is classified. The inmates are believed to make up a who's who of the top Al Qaeda leadership. But even their names are classified. Some of them may never be released. For all practical purposes, they have just disappeared." They are called "high-value" detainees.

As Chris Bury continued, these prisons, set up after 9-11, "may be unprecedented in American history. They operate entirely outside the U.S. judicial system, according to a set of rules approved by the Justice Department [that] are also top secret." (Emphasis added.)

Clearly, the others accountable for this wholly hidden gulag include Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. Without going into Nightline's in-depth analysis of "the disappeared," Newsweek, in its superb report, "The Roots of Torture . . . The Road to Abu Ghraib" (May 24, 2004), provided background to the CIA's secret prison system:

By early 2002, the president, assured by his counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and other administration lawyers that he could approve secret, unsparing rules for interrogations, "signed a secret order granting new powers to the CIA. . . . [T]he president's directive authorized the CIA to set up a series of secret detention facilities outside the United States, and to question those held in them with unprecedented harshness.

"Washington then negotiated novel 'status of forces agreements' with foreign governments for the secret sites. These agreements gave immunity not merely to U.S. government personnel but also to private contractors."

On the May 13 Nightline broadcast, reporter John McWethy noted, "This system was both approved and heartily endorsed by President Bush." And George W. Bush himself appears briefly and states, "You need to have a president who understands you can't win this war with legal papers. We've got to use every asset at our disposal."

As McWethy pointed out, The New York Times, on the day of the broadcast, had revealed one technique being used on the CIA's prisoners: "water boarding." Al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was, said the Times, "strapped down forcibly, pushed under the water and made to believe he might drown." Nightline also noted "three investigations into the deaths of prisoners who were being interrogated by CIA agents in Iraq and Afghanistan."

But except for "water boarding, we know nothing specific of what is being done to the other unnamed prisoners in the CIA's secret cells. They have, as Chris Bury said, "in effect disappeared. . . . Since when are people in American custody allowed simply to disappear into a black hole?" On May 11, The Washington Post reported that this system is no longer limited to "senior Al Qaeda detainees."

Also on Nightlinewas Jack Cloonan. After 27 years in the FBI, Bury said, Cloonan "was the senior agent on the FBI's bin Laden squad in New York, and he headed the investigation of senior Al Qaeda official Khalid Shaikh Mohammed."

One day, from his New York office, Cloonan was giving directions to interrogators at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The target was giving information about Zacharias Moussaoui and Richard Reid.

"I told them," Cloonan said on the program, "that I wanted them to follow their procedures that we had adopted as if they were talking to this person in New York. . . . I had a suspicion that things like [what we're talking about] were going to happen. . . .

"What are we going to do with these people [in the secret CIA cells] when we're finished exploiting them? Are they going to disappear? Are they stateless? . . . What are we going to explain to people when they start asking questions about where they are. Are they dead? Are they alive? What oversight does Congress give?"

On the front page of the June 27 Washington Post, Dana Priest reported: "The CIA has suspended the use of extraordinary interrogation techniques approved by the White House pending a review by [the] Justice Department. . . . The 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' as the CIA calls them, include feigned drowning."

The decision applies to such CIA interrogation centers "as those around the world." But many are utterly secret. So how will we know what's being done there?

Coming soon: an exclusive report from Human Rights First that goes deeper and farther than Nightline's "The Disappeared." Next week, the Supreme Court rescues the Constitution from Bush.

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