Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The CIA Archipelago

In 1973, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn published a book, The Gulag Archipelago, about the vast network of prison and forced labor camps spread across the Soviet Union. This network was secret. It was known only to the people who were forced to exist in it and the people who ran it.

The word GULAG is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Ispravitelno-trudovykh Lagerei, or "Chief Directorate of Corrective Labor Camps") -- the name of the Soviet agency that administered the prison camp system. An archipelago is a group, or chain, of islands in a large body of water; the word was used as a metaphor for this chain of forced labor camps in the larger body of the Soviet Union.

There has never been anything remotely similar to the Soviet gulag archipelago in the United States. The United States, after all, is a democracy -- unlike the Soviet Union, which was a brutal, tyrannical dictatorship.

But there is an American version of the gulag archipelago. Like the Soviet version, it is an archipelago: a vast network of secret detention centers scattered over a larger geographic body -- in our case, the planet Earth. And the American version of the Soviet prison camp archipelago is also administered by a government agency -- the Central Intelligency Agency, or CIA.

So let's call it the "CIA Archipelago."

There are several important differences between the Soviet gulag archipelago and the American CIA Archipelago:

  • The Soviet gulag archipelago spanned almost 40 years -- from 1918 (the year my father was born) to 1956 (the year I entered first grade). The CIA archipelago is only about four years old.
  • The Soviet gulag archipelago imprisoned millions of people; the CIA archipelago contains, probably, somewhat more than 100 people (although the exact number is known only to a handful of government officials).
  • The Soviet gulag archipelago was a network of both prison camps and forced labor camps. The CIA archipelago is a network of prison camps only -- detention and interrogation facilities in which suspected Al Qaeda terrorists are held.
  • The Soviet gulag archipelago was located entirely within the borders of the Soviet Union. That was possible because the Soviet Union was a brutal dictatorship where respect for legal and human rights existed minimally, if at all, even in ordinary daily life. The CIA archipelago is located entirely outside the borders of the United States. This is necessary because, after all, the United States is a constitutional democracy, with civil, legal, and human rights guaranteed by an extensive system of law, custom, common values, heritage, and culture. A network of secret detention centers into which people disappear, possibly never to be seen again, with no legal or human rights and no outside oversight, could never exist within the borders of a free and democratic society like the United States. It would not be possible. For that reason, the CIA had to build its archipelago outside U.S. borders -- in countries that don't value democracy or in which democracy is still new and shaky.

Those are the differences. There are a number of similarities between the Soviet gulag archipelago and the American CIA archipelago. Possibly the most touching one is the hat tip the CIA has given to the old Soviet system, by situating at least one of its archipelago prison facilities in an Eastern European compound that actually was used during the Soviet era. The Bush admin seems to like this method of showing its appreciation for its enemies, after they've been overthrown: There's that prison the Americans took over near Baghdad, called Abu Ghraib, for example. Saddam made it world-famous, and we did our best to keep up its reputation.

Anyway, here is more information about the CIA prison camp archipelago:

The secret facility [in Eastern Europe] is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.

The hidden global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. It depends on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic information about the system secret from the public, foreign officials and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions.

The existence and locations of the facilities -- referred to as "black sites" in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents -- are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.

The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.

While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, say officials familiar with the program, could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.

Yes, indeed, I shouldn't be surprised if the CIA was right about that. Those human rights types are so persnickety about disappearing people and torturing them.

And, of course, one takes it for granted that torture is occurring. Why keep the locations and even the existence of these facilities secret; and why locate them outside of the United States, if what goes on there could stand up to the light of day?

It is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in such isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas, according to several former and current intelligence officials and other U.S. government officials. Legal experts and intelligence officials said that the CIA's internment practices also would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries, where detainees have rights to have a lawyer or to mount a defense against allegations of wrongdoing.

Host countries have signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as has the United States. Yet CIA interrogators in the overseas sites are permitted to use the CIA's approved "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," some of which are prohibited by the U.N. convention and by U.S. military law. They include tactics such as "waterboarding," in which a prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning.

Some detainees apprehended by the CIA and transferred to foreign intelligence agencies have alleged after their release that they were tortured, although it is unclear whether CIA personnel played a role in the alleged abuse. Given the secrecy surrounding CIA detentions, such accusations have heightened concerns among foreign governments and human rights groups about CIA detention and interrogation practices.

About 30 are considered major terrorism suspects and have been held under the highest level of secrecy at black sites financed by the CIA and managed by agency personnel, including those in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, according to current and former intelligence officers and two other U.S. government officials. Two locations in this category -- in Thailand and on the grounds of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay -- were closed in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

A second tier -- which these sources believe includes more than 70 detainees -- is a group considered less important, with less direct involvement in terrorism and having limited intelligence value. These prisoners, some of whom were originally taken to black sites, are delivered to intelligence services in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan and other countries, a process sometimes known as "rendition." While the first-tier black sites are run by CIA officers, the jails in these countries are operated by the host nations, with CIA financial assistance and, sometimes, direction.

Morocco, Egypt and Jordan have said that they do not torture detainees, although years of State Department human rights reports accuse all three of chronic prisoner abuse.

The top 30 al Qaeda prisoners exist in complete isolation from the outside world. Kept in dark, sometimes underground cells, they have no recognized legal rights, and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with or even see them, or to otherwise verify their well-being, said current and former and U.S. and foreign government and intelligence officials.

Most of the facilities were built and are maintained with congressionally appropriated funds, but the White House has refused to allow the CIA to brief anyone except the House and Senate intelligence committees' chairmen and vice chairmen on the program's generalities.

In short, no accountability. Congress gives the CIA the money, but doesn't know what the money is going to be used for and has no control or oversight at all about how the money is used, where it's used, whether it's used appropriately, for legal or illegal activities, etc.

Sounds about right for an open, democratic society in which our leaders govern with the informed consent of the people, don't you think?

Now here's arguably the best part of all this. Why and how do you suppose the CIA prison archipelago got started in the first place? Because the Bush administration does not have any former Boy or Girl Scouts in its ranks: They were not prepared.

The secret detention system was conceived in the chaotic and anxious first months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the working assumption was that a second strike was imminent.

Since then, 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. Mid-level and senior CIA officers began arguing two years ago that the system was unsustainable and diverted the agency from its unique espionage mission.

"We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand strategy," said one former senior intelligence officer who is familiar with the program but not the location of the prisons. "Everything was very reactive. That's how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don't say, 'What are we going to do with them afterwards?' "

I'm sure it will all come out right in the end, though. It has to: We are doing these things for a Noble Cause; and that makes a big difference when you have to shock prisoners' genitals and conduct mock drownings.

And if it should happen that the Things We Have To Do To Defeat the Islamo-Fascists get even more nasty (because you know, it could always be worse), then it may turn out to be a good thing for all Americans that the nastiness is occurring outside the United States: Unlike the Germans who saw the Jews being herded onto the cattle cars, heard the rumbling of those trains at night, and had a good idea of what was going to happen to the people inside them, we will not have to hear the screams or see the bodies.

What a blessing.


Joan, AKA Panam Woman said...

HI Kathy!

This is one of the most interestng columns you have written yet and one that should be read widely. It would be great if someone with clout picked this column up and made sure more people got to read it. It has made me think hard.

Take Care

Kathy said...

Wow, thank you, Joan. That means a lot to me. Really; you don't hand out compliments like that easily.

I'm actually kinda proud of this one myself. It took me a long time to formulate the thoughts and articulate them.

I'm very happy you got something valuable out of reading it.

Wolfgang P. May said...

Apart from humanitarian considerations, information obtained through torture is unreliable. When I served as Intelligence Operation Officer of the 4th US Armored Division in Germany, our professional interrogators told me that they try to develop a rapport with the detainee. This takes a few days, but the intel is usually good. They told me that torture is use only by pathetic, despicable amateurs. For more info on how truly professional interrogators work, read "Talking with Victor Charlie" by Tourison.

Das said...

In other words, the comparison between the Soviet gulags and the CIA does not hold up - but you'll go ahead and make it anyway.

Is it possible for you to make a point without misrepresentaion?

Just curious, cheers.

Kathy said...

Interesting comment, Wolfgang. It's good to hear the thoughts on this subject of someone who has professional experience in intelligence-gathering.

Thanks for your contribution.

Kathy said...

In other words, the comparison between the Soviet gulags and the CIA does not hold up - but you'll go ahead and make it anyway.

The comparison holds up; but to be accurate, we can't refer to the CIA archipelago as a gulag, because that term is an acronym for a specific organization. We COULD say, however, that the CIA archipelago is substantively similar to the former Soviet archipelago in a number of ways -- chief among them being the fact that it's a network of secret prisons scattered over a very large area; the fact that no one knows where the prisons are, who is in them, or what goes on there except for the prisoners and a handful of individuals directly involved with running them; the fact that the prisoners in the facilities have no legal rights and in fact in any meaningful sense of the word, do not exist anymore; and the fact that no outside body or group has any control or oversight over what goes on in those places.

That is the CIA Archipelago.

Oh, and one more similarity, as I mentioned in my post. A number of the CIA secret prisons are said to be located in the former Soviet bloc -- possibly in some of the same areas where the Soviet's gulag facilities were.

If there's anything else about my post you need clarified, let me know.