CIA Secret Prisons Exposed


CIA officers soon learned one thing for sure—prisoners sent to Bright Light and [other CIA secret prisons] . . . were probably never going to be released. “The word is that once you get sent to Bright Light, you never come back,” said the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center veteran. James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration

May is the month that the United States has been summoned to Geneva by the United Nations Committee Against Torture to, as Reuters reported on April 18, “provide information about secret detention facilities and specifically whether the United States assumed responsibility for alleged acts of torture in them.”

The committee also wants a list of all these secret prisons. So do I—along with every major human rights organization and some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. However, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, rigidly keeps refusing to authorize an investigation into these “black sites,” as they are called in CIA internal communications. (The United States is a faithless signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and is now being called to account.)

Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said the prisoners in these hidden gulags will be there as long as “the war on terror continues.” He added, in an April 12 Time interview: “I’m not sure I can tell you what the ultimate disposition of those detainees will be.”As far as their families are concerned, these “detainees” have vanished from the face of the earth.

Time says that Negroponte’s comments “appear to be the first open acknowledgement of the secret U.S. detention system” (authorized by the president soon after 9-11).

Actually, when the CIA recently fired senior official Mary O. McCarthy—for allegedly providing classified information about CIA secret prisons in Eastern Europe to The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest—that public accusation also officially revealed the existence of the “black sites.” (McCarthy denies that she was a source for Priest.)

The cover has long ago been blown on these dungeons by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and the ceaseless researchers at NYU law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. And in the Voice, I’ve been writing on what I can find out about them since the end of 2002.

But the CIA, the president, Alberto Gonzales, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld have nothing to say about these gulags, which are wholly removed from American law and the international treaties we have signed.

Now, however, in an explosive, documented April 5 Amnesty International report—”Below the Radar: Secret Flights to Torture and ‘Disappearance’ “—there is direct testimony, for the first time, from three men who have been salted away in these secret CIA prisons.

This 41-page report, currently reverberating throughout Europe, also includes a wide range of detailed information about the CIA’s kidnapping and “renditions” of suspects to countries known for torturing prisoners. But most revealing are Amnesty International’s interviews with the three men from Yemen who were “held in at least four secret US-run facilities . . . probably in Djibouti, Afghanistan, and somewhere in Eastern Europe.”

In their last “black site,” where they were disappeared for 13 months, Muhammad Bashmilah, Salah Ali Qaru, and Muhammad al-Assad were imprisoned—they believe it was in Eastern Europe—where “they were never allowed to look outside. . . . And for month after month, the men had no idea whether it was day or night . . . or whether their torment of spending endless days staring at blank walls, or being interrogated, would ever end.”

Why they were finally returned to Yemen is unknown; but there—where they were first arrested two and a half years ago before falling into CIA crevasses—they were charged on February 13, 2006, with having forged a travel document. Amnesty International emphasizes:

“None was charged with any terrorism-related offense; [and] the Chief of Special Prosecution in Yemen told Amnesty International that they were not suspected of any such involvement.”

On the old forgery charge, the judge in Yemen sentenced them to time served, the trial record notes, “in an unknown place by the USA.”

They were then released. But, AI adds, “All continue to suffer the dire mental and physical health consequences of torture and ill-treatment, including the prolonged periods in isolation.”

As Eric Olson, acting director of government relations at Amnesty International USA, says, their long-term solitary imprisonment can, by international standards, “be considered cruel and inhuman treatment,” and two “were in a facility where they were chained to a ring on the floor permanently.”

But what of the others who have been disappeared in the CIA’s secret prisons? In the Voice nearly two years ago, I quoted Jack Cloonan, a 27-year veteran of the FBI who, in New York, as senior agent on the FBI’s bin Laden squad, headed the investigation of the master Al Qaeda strategist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Cloonan had been directing the interrogation of Mohammed in a once secret CIA interrogation center at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan (which Dana Priest exposed in The Washington Post).

Concerned at the time about the network of still hidden CIA interrogation centers around the world, Cloonan asked: “What are we going to do with these people when we’re finished . . . with 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 have?”

Will the elite Washington press finally ask this question of presidential press secretary Tony Snow—and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts? And especially George W. Bush at his next press conference? What are these American values, Mr. President, we stand for against the terrorists?