Secret Prisons: Implications of the Administration's Maneuver

11 MINS READSep 14, 2006 | 01:39 GMT
By Fred Burton Speaking on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several other al Qaeda members who were held and questioned by the CIA have been transferred to military custody and now are being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The announcement came soon after another notable speech concerning the war against al Qaeda: On Sept. 6, Bush publicly acknowledged, for the first time, what has been one of the world's worst-kept secrets — that the CIA held a number of high-value al Qaeda suspects in its own custody for some time. Those detainees now have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay to await trial. With these transfers, the CIA is, at least for now, officially out of the "secret prison" business — a business that had grown into a serious political and potentially legal liability for the U.S. government. This does not mean, however, the United States is jettisoning any of its power to subject captured al Qaeda suspects to rigorous interrogation. Rather, it indicates the CIA likely is reverting to procedures that were standard before 9/11 (and have remained in use since then), involving cooperation with foreign intelligence and security services. The Bush administration has moved to shed a major liability, without sacrificing any practical powers to obtain information from captured terrorist suspects. Secret Prisons: Low-Tech, High-Cost It has been widely understood, though until recently never officially acknowledged, that the U.S. government has been holding and debriefing several high-ranking al Qaeda suspects who were captured or "disappeared" in 2002 and 2003. The clandestine sites where they were being interrogated became known in the media as the "CIA's secret prisons." The "secret prison" term has never been used to apply to huge facilities like Abu Ghraib or Alcatraz, where thousands of inmates were housed. Rather, it refers to a network of small, low-key facilities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia where the CIA could isolate and question the handful of people in its custody for prolonged periods. For this, the only infrastructure requirements would be a secure perimeter, a well-designed holding cell and an interview room. The design of the holding cell would be key. It would need to be wired for video and sound, and constructed in such a way that interrogators could control the intensity of lighting, ambient temperatures and noise levels. When these elements are manipulated and sleep is denied them, prisoners grow disoriented. Isolation also would be critical, since interrogators would not want prisoners to communicate with or receive any news from the outside world. It has been widely reported that Mohammed, the al Qaeda operational planner, and other prisoners were subjected to controversial interrogation techniques — such as "water boarding," in which the person being questioned fears suffocation or drowning — while in CIA custody. There is disagreement as to the effectiveness of such techniques, however. Some sources have told STRATFOR that these methods were highly successful in general, others have indicated that they were not. Sources also have disagreed about the outcomes with regard to specific detainees. Some have claimed that water-boarding broke the resolve of Mohammed, causing him to spill details of plots; others have said he resisted the technique. There are deep divisions within the American intelligence, military and law enforcement communities not only over the ethical and moral questions surrounding such practices, but also as to whether any intelligence obtained in these ways is reliable. The Significant Downside It is no secret that the "secret prisons" became a serious political liability for the Bush administration, for numerous reasons apart from the allegations of torture and the potentially dubious intelligence results. At this stage in the war against al Qaeda, the drawbacks associated with the system simply outweigh any perceived or actual advantages to be derived. The most obvious, and perhaps primary, issue is the political question. This is an election year, and the president — in large part because of Iraq and aspects of his strategy in the war against al Qaeda — is viewed by many as a liability to his own party. By closing down the secret prisons (which have been generating an outcry from the media and foreign governments for well over a year) and transferring the prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, the administration is ridding itself of a millstone and taking the issue away from Democrats who might be inclined to use it in their campaigns. The move also is a gift of sorts to the governments of countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia that have hosted the secret prisons. In many countries — particularly Muslim states — questions about or a growing awareness of the system among the public has brought considerable pressure to bear against the host government. Third, the "secret prison" system has borne consequences for the CIA internally. The agency was never designed to serve as an alternative to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, but to function as an intelligence agency. During the Cold War, it did set a precedent for guarding and debriefing defectors in "safe-houses," but the corporate culture, mindset and mission have not prepared agents to guard and care for maximum-security prisoners for life. Moreover, the requirements involved can be quite expensive; not only is there a need to maintain detention facilities themselves and pay staffers who work in them, but also a need to keep the host government happy so the prisons can be maintained in the first place. In most parts of the world, this means money — either paid into the personal accounts of national leaders, provided as aid or equipment for the country's intelligence and security forces, or both. By transferring the problem to the Department of Defense, the CIA has absolved itself of present and future responsibility for such issues. Fourth, there are very real questions about how the "secret prison" system and the interrogations that take place in such facilities can be reconciled with the American legal system or international human rights courts. These questions have both theoretical and practical implications. For instance, CIA employees and management have become worried about being held criminally or civilly liable for the treatment of terrorist suspects in this environment. It is a concern that stems partly from the general public controversy and partly from fears of a political backlash should the Democrats take control of Congress in November. It is little wonder, then, that the Bush administration last week proposed draft legislation that would exempt CIA officers and other civilian government employees from prosecution and lawsuits related to the treatment of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody. Meanwhile, a number of former and current CIA employees have purchased private liability insurance to cover potential legal expenses and to protect against any civil judgments that could bankrupt them personally. Fifth, there is the inevitable issue of time. Most of the al Qaeda operatives who were being held by the CIA were captured in 2002 and 2003. By now, any actionable intelligence they might have possessed has grown stale and likely has long since been overtaken by events. Given the considerable disruption of al Qaeda's organizational infrastructure and the group's structural evolution since 9/11, it no longer is likely that those who have been in custody for years can shed any light on what al Qaeda is planning to do today, next week or next year. For the CIA, these suspects have outlived their usefulness. Finally, there is a question of numbers. Again, given the disruption of al Qaeda as a formal organization, there simply are not many people left whose interrogations would be sufficiently valuable to justify continuation of the secret prison system, with all its attendant headaches. Al Qaeda is no longer the same organization that it was in 2001; it is much more decentralized. The serious attacks carried out since 9/11 have been undertaken by regional actors such as Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al Qaeda in Iraq, or by grassroots organizations sympathetic to al Qaeda. There is no evidence that a central operational commander is still helping to plan and coordinate the actions carried out by these networks, as before 9/11. Because of this, and the absence of any further attacks within the United States, Washington has appeared content to let its allies handle terrorist suspects captured in recent years. Simply put, most of those personally involved in the 9/11 attacks have been captured or killed, and there is not much hope that Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri will ever see the inside of a secret prison. They do not want to be taken alive, and the United States does not want to deal with the dilemmas it would face in holding them and placing them on trial. As the Damadola strike in January and the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq have shown, if the U.S. government believed it had obtained a firm location for either of them, that location would quickly be destroyed. The New Old Way Despite its use of "secret prisons" for select al Qaeda suspects, the CIA has continued a long-standing program of close cooperation with foreign intelligence services that take custody of terrorist suspects. In fact, global liaison efforts have increased drastically since 9/11, and relationships with liaison intelligence services have improved. The CIA long has wielded considerable influence and oversight — in some cases, even control — with the intelligence services of many countries. The FBI and State Department also have channels of influence; training schools, such as the Bureau's International Law Enforcement Initiative and State's Antiterrorism Assistance Program, offer credentials (and shopping trips to the United States) that are coveted by foreign officials, and the graduates of these programs often become valuable contacts for U.S. intelligence agencies upon returning to their home countries. Financial assistance, high-tech surveillance equipment, computers and other resources also give the United States useful inroads in gaining access to intelligence. Thus, even when the Americans are not provided with direct access to a suspect (in some cases, direct access is not desired by agents who want to preserve plausible deniability considering the suspect's treatment), the ability to pass intelligence requirements to the foreign services that conduct interrogations — sometimes using torture — remains intact. From the CIA's perspective, the means through which intelligence (or even the suspect) enters the system is not a primary issue; it is the intelligence "take" that matters. Thus, the agency has continued to use another controversial process of "extraordinary rendition" to transport suspects from one country to another (usually the suspect's home country) for interrogation or imprisonment. The U.S. government typically takes the lead in these cases — and picks up the tab. Quite often, the suspect to be "rendered" is either wanted in his home country or has been tried and convicted there already — as was the case for several al Qaeda suspects, convicted in absentia for terrorist crimes committed in their native countries. However, rendition can work both ways: Wanted suspects sometimes are picked up by foreign security services and "rendered" to the United States. For example, Mahmoud Abouhalima, one of the men convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, fled New York shortly after the bombing but was returned to the United States by Egypt to stand trial. Ultimately, the Bush administration's decision to rescind the use of "secret prisons" does nothing to prohibit this kind of work with foreign intelligence services, which was a mainstay of the CIA before the 9/11 attacks. Even in cases where Washington has serious differences with a host government over strategic or political issues, there can remain close cooperation between intelligence services on the interrogation of al Qaeda suspects. Consider the unlikely example involving the United States and Syria in 2002: The United States rendered a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, back to Syria — at the cost of a major strain in U.S.-Canadian relations. The end of the CIA program, whether permanent or temporary, will not leave the United States with any blind spots in its war against al Qaeda. In fact, considering that only a few al Qaeda members were ever held by the CIA, most of the suspects interrogated in this war have been questioned by foreign proxies — even since clandestine interrogation centers came into use. The flow of intelligence can be expected to continue — and it perhaps could be argued that it might increase, as political attention in the United States concerning the treatment of prisoners turns elsewhere and foreign services continue their work without interference. At the end of the day, then, it appears that the Bush administration's recent maneuvers are purely cosmetic, insofar as the conduct of the war against al Qaeda is concerned. The change likely will have the most impact on the domestic political front, with the approaching election battle.

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