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CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons

Origins of the Black Sites

In Afghanistan, the largest CIA covert prison was code-named the Salt Pit, at center left above.
In Afghanistan, the largest CIA covert prison was code-named the Salt Pit, at center left above. (Space Imaging Middle East)

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The idea of holding terrorists outside the U.S. legal system was not under consideration before Sept. 11, 2001, not even for Osama bin Laden, according to former government officials. The plan was to bring bin Laden and his top associates into the U.S. justice system for trial or to send them to foreign countries where they would be tried.

"The issue of detaining and interrogating people was never, ever discussed," said a former senior intelligence officer who worked in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, or CTC, during that period. "It was against the culture and they believed information was best gleaned by other means."

On the day of the attacks, the CIA already had a list of what it called High-Value Targets from the al Qaeda structure, and as the World Trade Center and Pentagon attack plots were unraveled, more names were added to the list. The question of what to do with these people surfaced quickly.

The CTC's chief of operations argued for creating hit teams of case officers and CIA paramilitaries that would covertly infiltrate countries in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe to assassinate people on the list, one by one.

But many CIA officers believed that the al Qaeda leaders would be worth keeping alive to interrogate about their network and other plots. Some officers worried that the CIA would not be very adept at assassination.

"We'd probably shoot ourselves," another former senior CIA official said.

The agency set up prisons under its covert action authority. Under U.S. law, only the president can authorize a covert action, by signing a document called a presidential finding. Findings must not break U.S. law and are reviewed and approved by CIA, Justice Department and White House legal advisers.

Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush signed a sweeping finding that gave the CIA broad authorization to disrupt terrorist activity, including permission to kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in the world.

It could not be determined whether Bush approved a separate finding for the black-sites program, but the consensus among current and former intelligence and other government officials interviewed for this article is that he did not have to.

Rather, they believe that the CIA general counsel's office acted within the parameters of the Sept. 17 finding. The black-site program was approved by a small circle of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials, according to several former and current U.S. government and intelligence officials.

Deals With 2 Countries

Among the first steps was to figure out where the CIA could secretly hold the captives. One early idea was to keep them on ships in international waters, but that was discarded for security and logistics reasons.

CIA officers also searched for a setting like Alcatraz Island. They considered the virtually unvisited islands in Lake Kariba in Zambia, which were edged with craggy cliffs and covered in woods. But poor sanitary conditions could easily lead to fatal diseases, they decided, and besides, they wondered, could the Zambians be trusted with such a secret?


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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