Mark Danner

CIA Closing Secret Overseas Sites for Terror Detainees

Author: Scott Shane


WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency announced on Thursday that it will no longer use contractors to conduct interrogations, and that it is decommissioning the secret overseas sites where for years it held high-level Al Qaeda prisoners.

In a statement to the agency’s work force, the director, Leon E. Panetta, said that the secret detention facilities were no longer in operation, but he suggested that security and maintenance have been continued at the sites at taxpayers’ expense.

“I have directed our agency personnel to take charge of the decommissioning process, and have further directed that the contracts for site security be promptly terminated,” Mr. Panetta said. “It is estimated that our taking over site security will result in savings of up to $4 million.”

The C.I.A. has never revealed the location of its overseas facilities, but intelligence officials, aviation records and news reports have placed them in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania and Jordan, among other countries. Agency officials have said that fewer than 100 prisoners were held in them over several years.

In his first week in office, President Obama banned coercive interrogation and ordered the closing of the agency’s detention program, though the agency can still hold prisoners for short periods.

Mr. Panetta’s statement, along with a classified letter about interrogation policy that he sent Thursday to the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees, underscored the new administration’s sharp break with one of the most controversial programs of the Bush administration.

Starting in 2002, with the approval of President Bush and the Justice Department, the C.I.A. used harsh physical pressure against about 30 Qaeda prisoners, agency officials have said. Some of the treatment, including the technique known as waterboarding, has been described as illegal torture by an array of legal authorities, human rights groups, the International Committee of the Red Cross and several Obama administration officials, including Mr. Panetta.

A 2007 Red Cross report made public this week by The New York Review of Books concluded that the agency’s entire program violated international law, both by using torture and through the “enforced disappearance” of terrorist suspects. The report, based on interviews with 14 Qaeda prisoners now held by the United States military at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, described prisoners being slammed into walls, forced to stand for hours with arms handcuffed to the ceiling, confined in a small box, kept awake for days on end and exposed to cold temperatures.

In the statement, Mr. Panetta vowed to continue the “global pursuit” of Al Qaeda and its allies. But he said that interrogators will use traditional methods and not physical force, and that the interrogators will be government employees.

“C.I.A. officers, whose knowledge of terrorist organizations is second to none, will continue to conduct debriefings using a dialog style of questioning that is fully consistent with the interrogation approaches authorized and listed in the Army Field Manual,” Mr. Panetta wrote.

“C.I.A. officers do not tolerate, and will continue to promptly report, any inappropriate behavior or allegations of abuse. That holds true whether a suspect is in the custody of an American partner or a foreign liaison service,” he wrote, ruling out asking other countries’ interrogators to question suspects on behalf of the agency using the banned methods.

Former military psychologists working under contract for the agency helped design the harsh interrogation procedures, and contractors carried out some interrogations, as well as performing medical and security tasks, according to former agency officials. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had proposed legislation banning contractors from conducting interrogations, saying the job was too important to outsource.

The Senate committee recently began an investigation of the detention and interrogation program that is expected to take about a year, and senior Senate and House members have called for a broader and more public “truth commission” to investigate interrogation and other past counterterrorism programs.

On Thursday, Mr. Panetta said the agency would cooperate with Congressional reviews. But by speaking openly about interrogation policy, he may be trying to discourage additional investigations. He restated his opposition to investigation or prosecution of C.I.A. officers for their involvement in the program.

“Officers who act on guidance from the Department of Justice — or acted on such guidance previously — should not be investigated, let alone punished,” Mr. Panetta wrote. “This is what fairness and wisdom require.”