Poland and Lithuania Haunted by Their Involvement in Hosting CIA Torture Prisons
[Note: For complete article features and links, please see original here. - ape]
In the long search for accountability for the torturers of the Bush administration, which has largely been shut down by President Obama, lawyers and human rights activists have either had to try shaming the US through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or have had to focus on other countries, particularly those that hosted secret CIA torture prisons, or had explicit involvement in extraordinary rendition.
Successes have been rare, but hugely important — the conviction of CIA officials and operatives in Italy, for the blatant daylight kidnap of Abu Omar, a cleric, on a street in Milan in February 2003, and the court victory in Macedonia of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped in Macedonia, where he had gone on a holiday, and sent to a CIA “black site” in 2003 until the US realized that his was a case of mistaken identity. In the UK, the whiff of complicity in torture at the highest levels of the Blair government led to pay-offs for the British nationals and residents sent to Guantánamo.
Court cases were also launched in Spain, although they were suppressed, in part because of US involvement (under President Obama), and currently there are efforts to hold the US accountable before the the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for its use of Djibouti in a number of cases involving “extraordinary rendition” and “black sites.”
Perhaps the most enduring of the ongoing investigations is in Poland, one of three European countries that hosted CIA “black sites,” the others being Romania and Lithuania. A long-running prosecutor-led investigation in Poland has led to three “high-value detainees” at the Polish site, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah and Walid bin Attash — being granted victim status, and the prison’s existence continues to nag at the consciences of those in Poland who are appalled that a torture site on Polish soil — at Stare Kiejkuty, in the north east of the country — was used from December 2002 to September 2003, and was the place where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times.
In December, the determination of those seeking accountability paid off when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg held a hearing to examine the role of the Polish authorities in the extraordinary rendition, secret detention and torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. A ruling on that is expected sometime this year.
New information about the “black site” in Poland
Reporters too keep digging away at the story, and the latest is Adam Goldman of the Washington Post. In “The hidden history of the CIA’s prison in Poland,” published on January 23, Goldman reported that former CIA officials, speaking anonymously, had told him that, early in 2003, the US had paid the Polish government $15 million for the use of Stare Kiejkuty, which “had been flown from Germany via diplomatic pouch,” was packed in “a pair of large cardboard boxes,” and was picked up from the US Embassy in Warsaw by two CIA officials, who then took the boxes to the headquarters of the Polish intelligence service (Agencja Wywiadu), where, as Goldman reported, they “were met by Col. Andrzej Derlatka, deputy chief of the intelligence service, and two of his associates.”
Goldman proceeded to recap how Poland became the location for a “black site,” explaining how, after the capture in Faisalabad, Pakistan of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaydah (or Zubaida), on March 28, 2002, the CIA “needed a place to stash its first ‘high-value’ detainee.” Goldman also described Zubaydah as “a man who was thought to be closely tied to the al-Qaeda leadership and might know of follow-on plots,” but this is being generous to the CIA and the Bush administration, as there were certainly some within America’s intelligence apparatus who knew this not to be true.
Nevertheless, the US sought a place where Zubaydah could be interrogated away from prying eyes — a torture prison far from the US mainland, in other words. Goldman wrote that Cambodia and Thailand “offered to help,” but Cambodia “turned out to be the less desirable of the two.” Agency officers told their bosses that the proposed site was “infested with snakes,” so Thailand was chosen instead. Months later, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, suspected of involvement in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, was taken to the site about outside Bangkok.
With more “high-value detainees” expected, a former senior agency official told Goldman that a more suitable location was required. “It was just a chicken coop we remodeled,” the official said. When the CIA “reached out to foreign intelligence services,” Poland responded. The Polish intelligence service, Goldman wrote, “had a training base with a villa that the CIA could use in Stare Kiejkuty, a three-hour drive north of Warsaw.” He added, “Polish officials asked whether the CIA could make some improvements to the facility. The CIA obliged, paying nearly $300,000 to outfit it with security cameras.”
Even so, the building was “not spacious.” It was a two-storey villa, but it could only hold a handful of prisoners. To create more space, a “large shed behind the house” was also “converted into a cell.” The agency official told Goldman, “It was pretty spartan,” and also explained that there was an additional room where cooperative prisoners “could ride a stationary bike or use a treadmill.”
Al-Nashiri and Zubaydah were flown to the Polish site, code-named “Quartz,” on December 5, 2002. Five days later, Goldman wrote, “an e-mail went out to agency employees that the interrogation program was up and running, and under the supervision of the Special Missions Department of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC). Officials then began shutting down the prison in Thailand, eliminating all traces of the CIA presence.”
Goldman also noted that former CIA officials told him that Mike Sealy, a senior intelligence officer, was appointed to run the site. He was described as a ‘program manager’ and was briefed on the torture program developed by the CIA and approved by Jay S. Bybee of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the “torture memos” written by John Yoo.
With the usual careful language of the mainstream media, Goldman refused to describe the torture program honestly, instead calling it “an escalating series of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques” that were formulated at the CIA and approved by Justice Department lawyers,” which “included slapping, sleep deprivation and waterboarding, a technique that involved pouring water over the shrouded face of the detainee and creating the sensation of drowning” — more accurate, as ever, would be to describe it as a form of control drowning that the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition had the honesty to describe as “tortura del agua.”
Sealy apparently “oversaw about half a dozen or so special protective officers whom the CIA had sent to provide security,” although “the number of analysts and officers varied.” Goldman added that Polish officials “could visit a common area where lunch was served, but they didn’t have access to the detainees.”
Describing “problems in the implementation of the interrogation protocols,” Goldman write that CIA officials “clashed over the importance of Nashiri’s alleged role in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.” A former official said, “He was an idiot. He couldn’t read or comprehend a comic book,” rather undermining the case being made at Guantánamo by prosecutors in his trial by military commission. As Goldman explained, however, other CTC officials thought otherwise — that he “was a key al-Qaeda figure and was withholding information.”
Two former US intelligence officials told Goldman that there was “a tense meeting in December 2002,” at which senior CIA officials “decided that they needed to get tougher with him,” and sent in Albert El-Gamil, “a CIA linguist who had once worked for the FBI in New York.” El-Gamil, as Goldman explained, “was of Egyptian descent and spoke Arabic fluently, but he was not a trained interrogator,” and it was he who, notoriously, “subjected Nashiri to a mock execution” and put a drill to his head while he was blindfolded, events recorded in the CIA Inspector General’s 2004 report into prisoner abuse.
Goldman noted that senior CIA officials only found out about these abusive episodes in January 2003, via a security guard. Sealy and El-Gamil were then taken out of Poland and dismissed from the program, leaving the CIA soon after, according to several officials.
In his article, Goldman also reported what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in March 2003. After being flown to Poland, he apparently “proved difficult to break, even when waterboarded,” according to several former CIA officials who spoke to Goldman, who also reported that KSM “would count off the seconds, between 20 and 40, knowing that the simulated drowning always ended within a certain period.”
One official told Goldman that, on one occasion, KSM “fell asleep on the waterboard between sessions,” while other officials “stated that he finally crumbled after extended sleep deprivation,” which sounds likely, as prolonged sleep deprivation is horrendous, although how useful his information was remains questionable.
Goldman also reported that KSM’s ego allowed his interrogators to secure information, which may well be true — although it may be that it would have been even easier getting him to talk without the torture, through proper, detailed rapport-building. As Goldman described it, “He liked to lecture the CIA officers, who would then steer the conversations in ways that benefited them,” and he also “liked to joust with his inquisitors.”
Goldman’s sources also told him that Abu Zubaydah “provided important information to his interrogators,” He apparently “identified people in photographs and gave what one official called ‘hundreds of data points,’” although, again, how reliable that was is open to question. Abu Zubaydah’s identifications of people from photographs litter the classified military files from Guantánamo, which were released by Wikileaks in 2011, but they are, in general, both vague and unreliable. As the Washington Post explained in March 2009, “not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu [Zubaydah]‘s tortured confessions.” The Post added that, according to former senior government officials, “Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu [Zubaydah] — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced,”
Officials also told Goldman that Abu Zubaydah “was even willing to help get new detainees to talk,” and a former official said that he stated, “Allah knows I am only human and knows that I will be forgiven.”
Goldman also noted that former officials involved in the torture program — Jose Rodriguez, the CIA’s former deputy director of operations, have said that it produced “dramatic positive results,” although he noted that the Senate Intelligence Committee “intends to challenge such assertions” when — if — its 6,000-page report on the torture program, which was completed over a year ago, but has not yet seen the light of day, even in a severely redacted form, is made public. He quoted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the committee chairman, stating that the report provides “a detailed, factual description of how interrogation techniques were used, the conditions under which detainees were held, and the intelligence that was — or wasn’t — gained from the program.”
According to Goldman, the committee “intends to release portions” of its report in the not too distant future.
Goldman’s article concluded with him noting that the CIA eventually had to leave Poland, “fearing that maintaining one location for too long risked exposure” — a sure sign that senior officials knew that what they were doing was wrong, however much John Yoo and Jay Bybee had tried to pretend it wasn’t. When it closed in September 2003, Goldman reported that the CIA “scattered detainees to Romania, Morocco and, later, Lithuania,” and added, “Looking for a long-term solution, the CIA paid the Moroccans $20 million to build a prison it never used that was code-named ‘Bombay.’” Curiously, he fails to mention “Strawberry Fields,” the facility within Guantánamo (exposed in 2010 by Matt Apuzzo and Goldman, when he was working for the Associated Press), where at least some of the “high-value detainees” were sent from September 2003 to March 2004, when they were flown out again. This was because the Bush administration had realized that, via Rasul v. Bush (the prisoners’ habeas corpus case decided in June 2004), the Supreme Court was going to allow lawyers in to the prison.
He added that the “black sites” in Romania and Lithuania were closed before Porter J. Goss stepped down as CIA director in May 2006, with some prisoners “sent to a Moroccan jail that had been previously used,” while others “were sent to a new CIA prison in Kabul called ‘Fernando,’” which had replaced the notorious “Salt Pit,” and also notes that it was from these locations that the 14 “high-value detainees” were flown to Guantánamo in September 2006.
Senior Polish ex-intelligence official calls for transparency on “black site”
Adam Goldman’s article prompted Marek Siwiec, the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau from 1997 to 2004, including the years when the “black site” was open, to call for a “Commission of Public Trust” to be established to “expose what happened in Poland,” as Reuters described it.
Siwiec, who is now with the European Parliament, told Reuters, “The poor truth is better than a perfect lie. At this moment we have a number of poor lies and this creates a situation that I think should be changed. We have the position of common sense, the majority of people, who say: ‘Of course there was something, whatever it was.’”
He made it clear that he “had not been informed of any decision to let the CIA run a jail in Poland at that time, when he was a security adviser to then-president Aleksander Kwasniewski,” but as Reuters explained, “his call for a full investigation is the closest any senior Polish intelligence official, past or present, has come to acknowledging Poland has a case to answer on the matter.” He added that a commission “could unearth the truth, find out why it happened without apportioning blame to individuals, and of course the conclusions should be: Never again.”
As Reuters explained, “If any state officially acknowledges a role — and activists say Poland is the most likely to do so — that could lead to prosecutions of officials and to governments being forced to reveal details of sensitive dealings with US intelligence.”
Siwiec is one of several Polish officials, including then-president Kwasniewski, who were identified by Dick Marty in his 2007 Council of Europe report as officials who, as Reuters put it, “may be held accountable for knowing about or authorizing a CIA jail,” although they have all denied the allegations. Siwiec, in fact, sued Marty for claiming he had known about the “black site,” and the lawsuit was only dropped when Marty claimed parliamentary immunity.
As Reuters explained, the situation is difficult because, under Polish and international laws regarding torture and illegal detention, “anybody who knew about or authorised a CIA jail in Poland could be prosecuted — a factor that may discourage people who were involved from discussing candidly what happened.”
That, of course, is a problem that is not unique to Poland, of course, and which adds to the difficulties of securing accountability for America’s torture program in any country that may have been at all implicated (even to the extent of intelligence sharing, or turning a blind eye while rendition flights passed through their airspace or used their airports). However, when speaking about Adam Goldman’s article, Marek Siwiec called the information “credible,” but made a point of adding that Poland “should not leave to others to reveal what happened on its soil.”
Lithuanian court allows investigation on behalf of “high-value detainee”
Mustafa al-Hawsawi.In further good news, a court in Lithuania has given another “high-value detainee,” Mustafa al-Hawsawi (one of the 14 sent to Guantánamo in September 2006), the right to “an investigation into his alleged torture in a secret CIA detention centre in the country,” as Amnesty International described it in a news release. Al-Hawsawi was seized in Pakistan in 2003, and has stated that he was rendered to a CIA torture prison in the village of Antaviliai, in Lithuania, for some time between September 2004 and September 2006.
Amnesty International described the decision as “a breakthrough for justice,” after years of stonewalling by Lithuania, and Julia Hall, AI’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights, stated, “The court’s decision in the case of Mustafa al-Hawsawi is a real victory in the pursuit of accountability for Lithuania’s alleged complicity in the CIA rendition and secret detention programmes. The Lithuanian court has set an example for all of Europe and the USA by upholding the rule of law and recognizing that victims of torture and enforced disappearance at the hands of the CIA and European agents have an absolute right to a thorough investigation.”
She added, “The Lithuanian government and Prosecutor General must now open a full and effective investigation into Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s claims and ensure that any other individuals who have alleged that they were held in secret CIA detention there are afforded the same right.”
The Regional Court in Vilnius ruled that Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s claims “involved violations under the Lithuanian Constitution and international agreements and that he had a right to a full investigation,” adding that the previous refusal to investigate, made by the Prosecutor General in October 2013, had been “groundless.” A lower court had upheld that decision, but this new ruling paves the way for a new investigation.
Amnesty International also noted that the Prosecutor General had refused to initiate an investigation into the case of Abu Zubaydah, who was held in Lithuania after Poland, and stated that any new investigation in Lithuania should include him too.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).
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