By Craig Whitlock
Thursday, November 19, 2009
ANTAVILIAI, LITHUANIA -- Residents of this village were mystified five years ago when tight-lipped American construction workers suddenly appeared at a mothballed riding stable here and built a large, two-story building without windows, ringed by a metal fence and security cameras.
Today, a Lithuanian parliamentary committee is investigating whether the CIA operated a secret prison for terrorism suspects on the plot of land at the edge of a thick forest for more than a year, from 2004 until late 2005.
Lithuanian land registry documents reviewed by The Washington Post show the property was bought in March 2004 by Elite LLC, an unincorporated U.S. firm registered in the District.
Records in Lithuania and Washington do not reveal the names of individual officers for Elite but identify its sole shareholder as Star Finance Group and Holdings Inc., a Panamanian corporation. There is no record of Elite owning other property in Lithuania.
The company, which has since had its registration revoked by D.C. authorities, in turn sold the property to the Lithuanian government in 2007, two years after the existence of the CIA's overseas network of secret prisons known as black sites -- including some in Eastern Europe -- was first revealed by The Washington Post.
At the time, The Post withheld the names of Eastern European countries involved in the covert program at the request of White House officials, who argued that disclosure could subject those countries to retaliation from al-Qaeda.
The Lithuanian government has not publicly confirmed whether the property was one of the CIA's black sites.
The site in Antaviliai, about 15 miles outside the capital, Vilnius, is now used by Lithuania's State Security Department as a training center. Department officials have declined to comment on the circumstances under which it acquired the property or whether it was used by the CIA. A CIA spokesman also declined to comment.
Domas Grigaliunas, a former counterintelligence officer with the Lithuanian military, said it was widely known among the Lithuanian secret services that U.S. intelligence partners had built the site, although its original purpose was kept highly classified.
"It just popped up out of nowhere," he said in an interview. "Everybody knew this was handed to us by the Americans."
Grigaliunas said he was asked in 2004 by the deputy director of Lithuanian military intelligence to develop plans to help a "foreign partner" that was interested in bringing individuals to Lithuania and concealing their whereabouts as part of a covert operation.
He said he made some recommendations but was never told the identity of the foreign partner or whether the operation was carried out. Since then, however, he said he has become convinced that the program involved the CIA's detention centers for terrorism suspects.
"I have no documents to prove it, and I never worked in any prisons, but I believe they existed here," he said in an interview.
Villagers who live in a crumbling apartment complex about 100 yards from the site recalled how English-speaking construction workers descended on a small, shuttered horse-riding academy there in 2004. They said the workers refused to answer questions about what they were doing but brought shipping containers filled with building materials. The workers also excavated large amounts of soil; with all the digging, residents said they assumed that part of the new facility was underground.
"If you got close, they would tell us, in English, to go away," said a retired man who lives nearby and spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution. "We were really wondering what they were up to. We even wondered if it was a Mafia drug operation or something."
Members of the Lithuanian Parliament's National Security and Defense Committee visited the site recently as part of their investigation into whether the CIA detained terrorism suspects on Lithuanian territory.
The probe was authorized last month by the Parliament after ABC News reported in August that two CIA-chartered flights had brought al-Qaeda prisoners from Afghanistan to Vilnius in 2004 and 2005.
Lithuanian government officials denied the ABC News report at the time and said there was no documentation that the flights ever landed in their country. But the Parliament decided to take another look after Lithuania's newly elected president, Dalia Grybauskaite, said in October that she had "indirect suspicions" that reports of the CIA prison were accurate and urged a more comprehensive investigation.
Arvydas Anusauskas, chairman of the National Security and Defense Committee, declined to comment on its findings. In response to written questions submitted by The Post, he said the committee would interview "all the persons who might have known or could have known the information in question."
"The committee has all rights and tools to ultimately clarify the situation and to either confirm or deny any allegations of the transportation of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States and their detention on the territory of the Republic of Lithuania," he said.
Lithuanian officials have also been pressed to investigate by the Council of Europe, an official human rights watchdog, which has conducted its own probe of CIA operations on the continent. Council officials said they had received confidential records confirming that CIA-chartered planes had flown from Afghanistan to Vilnius in 2004 and 2005.
Thomas Hammarberg, the council's commissioner for human rights, said in a telephone interview that flight logs had been doctored to indicate that the planes had touched down in neighboring countries, including Finland and Poland.
Hammarberg visited Vilnius last month and said he personally urged Lithuanian officials to take the issue more seriously. "I told them it is quite likely that further information might leak from the United States, so they should hurry up and do their own investigation now," he said.
Staff writers Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.