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Secret CIA Prisons Raise Human Rights Concerns


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The Washington Post reported this week that the CIA is holding top al-Qaeda suspects in a secret prison compound, an old Soviet-era site in Eastern Europe, as part of a string of so-called `black sites' set up after September 11th. The Post did not publish the names of countries involved at the request of the US government. The report brought a rash of denials from countries across Eastern Europe, though, but no denials so far from the US government. Dana Priest, who covers national security for The Post, uncovered this story. She joins us from the studio at the newspaper.

Dana Priest, welcome.

Ms. DANA PRIEST (The Washington Post): Glad to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now first of all, do you have any notion about how many prisoners are in this covert prison system? Are these the so-called `high-value' detainees that we hear so much about?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, yes, I think that's who is in the black sites. You know, after 9/11, when the CIA began picking up people who they thought were the leaders of the al-Qaeda network, they quickly had a problem on their hands: Where do we put them? And they really wanted to keep them out of US courts, out of the reach, even, of international law because they wanted complete control over their interrogations, didn't want to have to give them any of the rights that suspects in democracies would have.

WERTHEIMER: Now obviously you talked to people who do know these places exist. Did they talk to you about what the justification is for having these sites?

Ms. PRIEST: Yes. The justification, especially right after 9/11, was the fear that there was a second plot that would come soon, a second attack. And they wanted to be able to use any measures they thought would be useful in trying to get people who didn't want to tell them about that to tell them about that. And what I found in my interviews with former and current intelligence officials is an angst over the fact that four years later they haven't been able to figure out a better way to keep these people that won't have the CIA left holding the bag if it becomes a scandal.

WERTHEIMER: Well, when it appears in the pages of The Washington Post, I think it's fairly safe to say that it has become a scandal. The European Commission is just one of the organizations which is launching an investigation into the existence of these prisons. What repercussions would you see for the countries that have sheltered this kind of thing?

Ms. PRIEST: The repercussions, well, the European Union Commission that is looking at it now is doing so because this sort of detention and the allegations of abuse are contrary to the European Union's human rights standards. I don't know if there would be sanctions. There would certainly be political embarrassment.

WERTHEIMER: The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, neither confirmed nor denied the existence of secret prisons, but he did say that the president's directive against the use of torture would apply wherever prisoners are held. This sounds as though the administration is trying to kind of get out ahead of this issue, but what do you think that means?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, I think he--it means he's trying to respond without confirming, and he's trying to set a limit on what possible interrogation techniques are being used. The problem with the formulation is when they say, `We do not torture,' what does torture mean in their view? And as we saw from the torture memo, that is a very extreme version of what torture is.

WERTHEIMER: When you were talking to current and former CIA officials and other people in the administration or in the Congress about this, did anybody tell you that they thought that it had worked in some way, that--to the US advantage, that things had been learned that were useful to know?

Ms. PRIEST: The administration and some people in the intelligence community will say that in the short period of time after the captives were captured that these measures were fruitful on some people in gaining information. The detainees now are so stale in the kind of information they have that they're not getting anything useful out of them. So I do think if you set aside the moral and legal questions and you want to talk about the efficacy, we have not been given nearly enough information to figure out whether these sorts of techniques are getting the kind of intelligence that the US says it wants.

WERTHEIMER: Dana Priest covers national security for The Washington Post. Thank you very much.

Ms. PRIEST: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.