Out of a Black hole
Bush gets specific in making his case to resume CIA jailings
For the past year, the CIA's secret overseas prisons were the giant elephant in Washington's parlor. Everybody knew of the jails-and that some of al Qaeda's top leaders were interned there. Officially, however, neither the jails nor the inmates existed.
All this changed last week when President Bush outlined the CIA's detention program and announced that 14 top al Qaeda suspects, including September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had been transferred to the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay. The unusual public revelations provided new insights into the structure, scope, and results of the controversial, covert jails. The facilities and interrogations were highly organized, handled fewer than 100 prisoners, and resulted in what officials say were significant intelligence gains.
Today, the jails (in unnamed countries overseas) are said to stand empty, the result of a sharp reversal by the Bush administration of its terrorism policy. After 9/11, the Bush administration decided that the Geneva Conventions — which then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales dismissed as "quaint" — did not apply to al Qaeda terrorist suspects. This allowed the Bush administration to direct the CIA to use coercive interrogation methods. But a Supreme Court ruling this summer struck down the program.
Shipped out. All the detainees have been sent to GuantÃÂÃÂ¡namo or their home countries or a third country to face trial. What kind of trial for those in Guantánamo will be determined by Congress, in what is likely to be a contentious debate (story, Page 34).
Meanwhile, the White House is using the publicity blitz to hammer Congress for clear legal authority to restart the CIA's detention program. Officials made clear that the new Pentagon rules forbidding coercive interrogations (story, Page 35) do not apply to the CIA. "It's our intent that the CIA detention program continue," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "It represents the single largest source of insight into al Qaeda."
In his speech, Bush outlined how the CIA's prisoners divulged crucial information about the inner workings and plans of al Qaeda. He detailed how a series of interrogations helped lead to arrests of other top operatives (box). In all, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that detainees have named some 86 individuals — many previously unknown — whom al Qaeda had deemed suitable for terrorist operations in the West. Many remain at large, but nearly half have been captured or killed.
Bush's account, however, left out some of the more embarrassing aspects of the program. In some cases, CIA operatives did employ very tough interrogation techniques widely condemned overseas. Mohammed, for instance, was subjected to water-boarding, or simulated drowning. Some of the rougher procedures also backfired. When Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi was subjected to some of these techniques, he falsely confessed that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to al Qaeda. "You can make them talk, but you can't make them tell the truth," says Dan Coleman, a retired FBI expert on al Qaeda.
Bush defended the program as legal, despite the Supreme Court ruling. "The United States does not torture," he insisted. Some Democrats, among others, took exception. "It goes back to the claim that this president can do anything as a wartime president, whether it's ignoring [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] or U.S. law regarding treatment of people," says Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.
So controversial were the techniques that the FBI barred its agents from taking part in CIA-led interrogations. "Just because a horrible tragedy happened doesn't mean the rules have to go out the window," says Coleman, now a senior consultant at Harbinger Technologies.
Up to the line. The CIA program began as an ad hoc solution to a pressing dilemma of what to do with what the CIA calls "high value" targets. But it evolved into a surprisingly formal structure, officials say. Interrogators were drawn from an experienced pool of CIA operatives who had to undergo 250 hours of advanced training sessions. Interrogations were monitored by nonparticipants who had the power to terminate any session if an interrogator stepped over the line.
Now, Bush wants Congress to insulate CIA personnel from any legal ramifications, a move that would allow the CIA to reopen its prisons. "The CIA will tell you they are second to none as interrogators and partly because they are better trained and more effective, other peoples' rules shouldn't apply to them," says Holt. "I find that attitude troubling." Some Democrats also complain that congressional oversight was insufficient.
On September 4, 14 of the most senior al Qaeda prisoners arrived in GuantÃÂÃÂ¡namo Bay. In the coming weeks, they will meet with lawyers for the first time, as well as the International Committee for the Red Cross. The CIA is likely to be embarrassed as some of the accounts of the conditions of their detention begin to emerge. There is one other problem: Prosecution could be challenging, particularly because much of the evidence against the prisoners came from their own accounts, which were extracted during coercive CIA interrogations.
With David E. Kaplan and Anna Mulrine
This story appears in the September 18, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.