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2006 Justice Memo Cites Food Strike by Detainees at Supermax Prison in Colorado

The strike reportedly occurred among convicted al-Qaeda prisoners at the maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.
The strike reportedly occurred among convicted al-Qaeda prisoners at the maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo. (By Chris Mclean -- Pueblo Chieftain Via Associated Press)
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By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 28, 2009

Justice Department officials argue in a newly released 2006 memo that al-Qaeda captives must be confined to detention facilities with extraordinarily tight controls, citing previously unknown incidents in which detainees plotted to stage protests and create disturbances.

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The memo contends that al-Qaeda members held in Colorado's federal "supermax" facility developed a crude communications network to coordinate a hunger strike and other group protests. The strike, which appears to have occurred earlier in 2006, was not made public.

"Even those terrorists kept in physical isolation within maximum security facilities can often find ways of communicating and thereby compromising institutional security," states the Aug. 31, 2006, document signed by Steven G. Bradbury, then-acting assistant attorney general for the department's Office of Legal Counsel.

The internal discussions about the appropriate level of security for al-Qaeda captives have particular resonance because of the ongoing debate over the Obama administration's plans to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer terrorism suspects to U.S. facilities. Some lawmakers oppose the planned transfer on the grounds that it will put communities near the prisons at risk.

Human rights groups and many law enforcement officials dismiss as ludicrous the notion that maximum-security prisons cannot keep convicted terrorists securely locked up, noting that men convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing have been held for more than a decade. Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, noted that a separate document, dated May 7, 2004, and released this week, gives a different reason for keeping detainees in isolation: They would "likely divulge information about the circumstances of their detention."

"The CIA worries that if these prisoners are kept in any other kind of facility, they will talk about the torture that was inflicted on them," Jaffer said.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said that the agency "held captured terrorists in isolation for reasons of security and to prevent detainees from colluding on stories they could then tell their interrogators."

The 2006 memo offers a string of legal justifications for the CIA's now-closed "black site" prisons, where the agency held and interrogated dozens of top terrorism suspects outside the U.S. legal system between 2002 and September 2006.

Bradbury argues in the memo that special facilities are necessary because the CIA's captives -- so-called high-value detainees -- are a special breed. "The detainees held by the CIA are not ordinary accused criminals; instead, they are extremely dangerous, and are often quite sophisticated," he writes. To prevent communication, he notes, the CIA facilities keep the detainees isolated and bombard them with constant, high-volume "white noise" to prevent them from shouting messages or encouragement to one another.

To underscore the point, he cites a "recent coordinated hunger strike" among convicted al-Qaeda members at the supermax prison in Florence, Colo. Even though the inmates had been kept apart, they managed to communicate by tapping on metal pipes that ran between the cells, the memo says. "Together, the terrorists orchestrated the beginning of their hunger strike and developed a sophisticated method to resist compulsory feeding," it says.

The document also cites a 2006 hunger strike by 75 detainees at Guantanamo, a protest that was coordinated by captives passing messages. "These events highlight the overriding need for maintaining tight security -- including rigorous controls on detainee communications -- at facilities housing terrorist detainees," the memo says.

Despite the controls at the black site prisons, al-Qaeda detainees have "demonstrated that they are a threat," by attacking guards and physically threatening them, it says.

Since the CIA's high-value detainees arrived at Guantanamo, they have been allowed to regularly spend up to four hours together for recreation in groups of two.

A spokesman for the Colorado prison said the facility does not comment on hunger strikes and would not confirm or deny that such an incident occurred.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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