Pressure mounted on the George W. Bush administration Thursday to provide details of secret prisons abroad reportedly run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where terror suspects are held incommunicado in dark, sometimes underground, cells.
According to an investigative article by the Washington Post‘s Dana Priest, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the CIA set up clandestine jails for al-Qaeda suspects in at least eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The paper said some were also located in Eastern Europe, although it withheld the specific countries involved at the request of "senior U.S. officials."
But Jean-Paul Marthoz, Human Rights Watch’s spokesman in Belgium, said independent investigation suggests that the secret CIA installations in Eastern Europe are in Poland and Romania.
Last fall, Human Rights Watch issued a report on "ghost prisoners" held by the CIA at undisclosed locations after being apprehended in places such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates.
The group said it was unable to obtain firsthand information on the treatment of these detainees, but added that press accounts have repeatedly cited unnamed government officials acknowledging torture or mistreatment.
"The concern is that under international law, states have an obligation to monitor and prevent torture from happening," Priti Patel, an attorney with the New York-based group Human Rights First, told IPS. "One of the most central things to achieve this is openness, and detentions within legal constraints."
"Even in the context of war, the United States is bound by Army regulations and international human rights laws to maintain a list of detainees and where they’re being held," she said. "But it doesn’t appear that Congress has had access to that information."
According to the Washington Post article, interrogators at the so-called "black sites" are permitted to use "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," including "waterboarding," in which a prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning. More than 100 people have reportedly been sent to the secret prisons, about 30 of whom are considered major terrorism suspects.
European Union spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing said the EU would conduct an informal inquiry into the allegations, and that if such secret prisons existed, they would violate EU human rights rules. Poland is a member of the EU, and Romania is scheduled to join the bloc in 2007.
"We have to find out what is exactly happening. We have all heard about this, then we have to see if it is confirmed," he said.
The UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, said Wednesday that he too would seek more information about the covert prisons.
"Every secret place of detention is usually a higher risk for ill treatment. That’s the danger of secrecy," Nowak said, adding that he would seek access to all U.S. detention facilities outside its territory.
The Washington Post article said that virtually nothing is known outside elite political and intelligence circles about the black sites, including who is detained and how long prisoners are held. But it adds that "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."
"There is at least one known detainee who died in CIA custody in Afghanistan," Patel noted. "We are calling for access for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and for the U.S. government to provide Congress with a list of all the facilities and the number of people being detained."
Responding to reporters’ questions Wednesday, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, "[S]ome people say that the test of your principles are what you do when no one is looking."
"And the president has insisted that whether it is in the public or is in the private, the same principles will apply and the same principles will be respected, and to the extent that people do not measure up to those principles, there will be accountability and responsibility," he said.
The administration has refused to confirm or deny the allegations, although they have been refuted by several of the governments named, including Poland, Thailand, and Bulgaria.
"It is extremely unlikely," Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former Polish defense minister who now serves as vice president of the European parliament, told the wire service UPI. "I don’t think our cooperation with the United States goes that far. Besides, these kind of goings-on would have been spotted and leaked to the press by now."
The revelations were quickly seized on by the opposition Democratic members of Congress, and even some Republicans, who have warned that the mounting evidence of prisoner mistreatment by U.S. forces in the "war on terror" is destroying U.S. credibility at home and abroad.
"This is not what America stands for," said Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. "This is more like Chile under [former dictator Augusto] Pinochet, or Argentina under the junta." Both of the South American countries endured military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.
Last month, in a pointed rebuke to the administration, the Senate voted 90-9 to endorse an amendment by Republican Sen. John McCain, a former combat pilot who was captured and held as a prisoner of war at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" for most of the Vietnam War, and three other Republican co-sponsors to the 2006 defense bill.
The amendment would ban the use of "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" as defined by the U.S. Constitution and any interrogation technique that is not authorized by the U.S. Army Field Manual, which was drafted to comply with the Geneva Conventions.
Arguing that it would hamstring the president’s ability to protect the country, the White House has threatened to veto the entire defense spending bill, and is lobbying hard for language exempting the CIA from its scope.
House and Senate conferees are meeting this week to reconcile the two versions of the defense bill. House Democrats say they already have 15 Republican backers, and Republicans have told the White House they expect the measure to pass, an Appropriations Committee spokesman said.
Opposition to the McCain amendment is largely concentrated in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, whose new chief of staff David Addington the replacement for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was arraigned Thursday for lying to federal investigators helped draft a now infamous 2002 memo arguing for legalized torture.
"What emerges will be a moral barometer," wrote Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. "It will be interesting to see if the barometer keeps falling."