Officials Relieved Secret Is Shared

Satellite images from above Afghanistan show before and after photos of a suspected CIA secret detention site. Above right, a well-fenced facility sits next to an old brick factory in a July 2003 photo while at left, the brick factory sits alone in a January 2001 image.
Satellite images from above Afghanistan show before and after photos of a suspected CIA secret detention site. Above right, a well-fenced facility sits next to an old brick factory in a July 2003 photo while at left, the brick factory sits alone in a January 2001 image. (Space Imaging)
By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Employees at CIA headquarters stood transfixed at television sets yesterday in a moment one senior official called "electric" as President Bush told the nation about the agency's covert prison system -- a program once considered so secret that even Bush did not know the details.

"I know it's going to make a lot of people sleep well at night," one counterterrorism officer said of the disclosure. The feeling of relief by the very people carrying out the program was a striking indication of how deeply attitudes have changed within the government about the administration's unorthodox counterterrorism tactics and the need to shroud them in secrecy.

"Finally the burden of this program will not rest only on the shoulders of the CIA," said James Pavitt, who headed CIA covert operations when the program was put in place, with White House approval, after Sept. 11, 2001. "This was a tough world and we were asked to do some tough things," he said, adding that such efforts were always within the law.

Although it was a recent Supreme Court ruling that forced the program into legal limbo and probably pushed the president into going public, the administration had begun debating whether to suspend the CIA's so-called black sites at least a year ago. European allies as well as senior officials at the State and Justice departments and the CIA, along with a handful of lawmakers, lobbied to abandon the program for something more transparent and with more legal protections of detainees.

In the past year, the CIA has studied more closely the effectiveness of harsh interrogation techniques that it and other agencies have used and concluded that some of those were worth discarding. CIA officials have eliminated some of those techniques and, within the past two months, have begun to consult for the first time with the full Senate and House intelligence committees about creating a new list of techniques.

But the rules for a new CIA prison system are still unsettled.

"Although there is no one in CIA custody today, it's our intent that the CIA detention program continue," said a senior intelligence official. "It's simply been too valuable in the war on terrorism to not allow it to move forward."

The idea, said several administration officials, is to get Congress's political buy-in to a program that is fraught with some of the most difficult questions facing the government: how a country steeped in the rule of law should treat suspected terrorists it believes have valuable information.

When it set up the program, the CIA -- at the urging of Vice President Cheney and a White House general counsel's office with an unconventional view of what constituted torture -- asserted that it needed to hide prisoners in secret locations around the world and to harshly interrogate them to extract time-sensitive information about possible terrorists attacks.

Government professionals worried about the program's effectiveness and legality. As controversy spread within Congress and around the world through media reports, some argued that the program was becoming counterproductive.

Some CIA employees refused to sit in meetings where the prisons or interrogation methods were being discussed. Others consulted lawyers.

"This program has been the subject of so much controversy and suspicion and resentment against the U.S. that on balance, it is probably desirable" to disclose and discontinue it "and get it behind us," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA officer and now a Georgetown University professor.

Administration officials said yesterday that the need for secret CIA prisons continues, but that they will seek legislation immunizing CIA employees from prosecution for anything they may have been asked to do that might now be considered illegal. At the same time, the administration will ask the intelligence committees to give it guidance to draw up a separate, shorter list of harsh techniques it might still employee under certain circumstances.

The point, said one senior official, "is to make the program more durable" and not "subject to the pendulum swings" of Congress or the president. Several officials interviewed requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the program. Others were permitted by the administration to talk to reporters but not to disclose their identities.

Part of the largest CIA covert action program since the height of the Cold War, the prison system grew to include eight countries, including several in Eastern European democracies, according to current and former intelligence officials. A senior intelligence official said yesterday that the system held nearly 100 people over the life of the program, but no more than a couple of dozen at any one time.

The prisons were made legal under U.S. law with a presidential finding allowing the agency to set them up. But they were illegal in the democratic countries in which they operated. Only a small handful of foreign intelligence officials -- and usually one or two top political leaders -- ever knew of their existence. Only CIA personnel were allowed on the sites, one of which was located on a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe. Others were once located in Thailand and Afghanistan.

A written defense of the program issued by the administration yesterday said it would be "practically impossible" to act quickly on "information from one detainee in the questioning of another" if they were all in the custody of different foreign governments. But the statement did not explain why that couldn't also have been accomplished if the detainees had been held together at Guantanamo Bay.

Prisoners were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques including feigned drowning, extreme isolation, slapping, sleep deprivation, reduced food intake, and light and sound bombardment -- sometimes in combination with each other. Human rights groups and many international legal experts have said these techniques amount to torture. The administration insists, as Bush did again yesterday, that it has never authorized or used torture.

Secret prisons became a particularly sensitive issue in Europe after The Washington Post reported on their existence in Eastern Europe in November. The European Parliament and Council of Europe both have ongoing investigations, and virtually all governments there have been forced to address the matter. Some have made thorough attempts to make sure their intelligence services never engaged in such cooperation; others have not.

European cooperation on counterterrorism is among the most productive relationships the CIA has and has resulted in the detainment of many top terrorists. European officials, too, though, have expressed deep concern that a system dependent upon such secrecy was not sustainable.

"We obviously welcome the news that they'll be closed," said one British official. "We welcome any news that ensures detainees are treated under the Geneva Conventions."

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, who favored the administration's stance and pushed for a revision of existing policy, alerted employees about Bush's White House statement moments before it aired. Hayden advised that they watch and assured them he was working to protect the employees who handled terrorists.

"The mood? It's good," offered one intelligence officer.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Dafna Linzer and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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