Within the heavily guarded perimeters of the Defense Department's much-discussed Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, the CIA has maintained a detention facility for valuable al Qaeda captives that has never been mentioned in public, according to military officials and several current and former intelligence officers.
The buildings used by the CIA are shrouded by high fences covered with thick green mesh plastic and ringed with floodlights, officials said. They sit within the larger Camp Echo complex, which was erected to house the Defense Department's high-value detainees and those awaiting military trials on terrorism charges.
At the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the CIA maintained a heavily guarded prison inside a prison where it held al Qaeda detainees for interrogation.
(Tomas Van Houtryve -- AP)
The facility has housed detainees from Pakistan, West Africa, Yemen and other countries under the strictest secrecy, the sources said. "People are constantly leaving and coming," said one U.S. official who visited the base in recent months. It is unclear whether the facility is still in operation today. The CIA and the Defense Department declined to comment.
Most international terrorism suspects in U.S. custody are held not by the CIA but by the Defense Department at the Guantanamo Bay prison. They are guaranteed access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and, as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year, have the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts.
CIA detainees, by contrast, are held under separate rules and far greater secrecy. Under a presidential directive and authorities approved by administration lawyers, the CIA is allowed to capture and hold certain classes of suspects without accounting for them in any public way and without revealing the rules for their treatment. The roster of CIA prisoners is not public, but current and former U.S. intelligence officials say the agency holds the most valuable al Qaeda leaders and many mid-level members with knowledge of the group's logistics, financing and regional operations.
The CIA facility at the Guantanamo Bay prison was constructed over the past year as the agency confronted one of its toughest emerging problems: where to hold terrorists for interrogations that could last for years.
During the 1990s, the CIA typically had custody of half a dozen terrorists at any time and usually kept them in foreign prisons, mostly in Egypt and Jordan. But just two months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, CIA paramilitary teams working with foreign intelligence services had arrested dozens of people thought to have knowledge of upcoming attacks on the United States.
The CIA is believed to be holding about three dozen al Qaeda leaders in undisclosed locations, U.S. national security officials say. Among them are pivotal Sept. 11 plotters Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida and the leader of Southeast Asia's Islamic terrorist movement, Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin, who is also known as Hambali.
CIA detention facilities have been located on an off-limits corner of the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, on ships at sea and on Britain's Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean.
Maintaining facilities in foreign countries is difficult, however, said current and former CIA officials. Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida were believed to have been taken to Thailand immediately after capture. The Thai government eventually insisted that they be transferred elsewhere.
"People are willing to help but not to hold," said one CIA veteran of counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay thus provided the CIA with an isolated venue devoid of the sensitive international politics. But it came with strings attached.
The U.S. military, which controls the base, required the agency to register all detainees, abide by military detention standards and permit the ICRC some level of access.
"If you're going to be in my back yard, you're going to have to abide by my rules" is how one defense official explained it.