CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons

WASHINGTON -- The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al-Qaida captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement.

The secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.

The global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. The existence and locations of the facilities -- referred to as "black sites" in classified documents -- are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.

While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites.

The arrangement has been increasingly debated within the CIA, where considerable concern lingers about its legality, morality and practicality. Mid-level and senior CIA officers began arguing two years ago that the system was unsustainable and diverted the agency from its unique espionage mission.

It is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in such isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas, said several former and current intelligence officials and other U.S. government officials. Legal experts and intelligence officials said that the CIA's internment practices would also be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries.

More than 100 suspected terrorists have been sent by the CIA into the covert system, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials and foreign sources. About 30 are considered major terrorism suspects and have been held under the highest level of secrecy at black sites financed by the CIA and managed by agency personnel, including those in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, according to current and former intelligence officers and two other U.S. government officials.

The East European countries that the CIA has persuaded to hide al-Qaida captives are democracies that have embraced the rule of law and individual rights after decades of Soviet domination. Each has been trying to cleanse its intelligence services of operatives who have worked on behalf of others -- mainly Russia and organized crime.

The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the East European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of U.S. officials.

The idea of holding terrorists outside the U.S. legal system was not under consideration before Sept. 11, 2001, according to former government officials.

"The issue of detaining and interrogating people was never, ever discussed," said a former senior intelligence officer who worked in the CIA 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-Qaida structure. Many CIA officers believed that the al-Qaida leaders would be worth keeping alive to interrogate.

Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush gave the CIA broad authorization to disrupt terrorist activity. It could not be determined whether Bush separately approved the black-sites program.

In the months after Sept. 11, the CIA found itself with hundreds of prisoners captured in Afghanistan. A short-term solution was improvised. The agency shoved its highest-value prisoners into metal shipping containers at Bagram Air Base. Then came reports, in winter 2001, that prisoners in containers had died of asphyxiation. The CIA asked Congress for, and was granted, tens of millions of dollars to establish a long-term system. The largest CIA prison in Afghanistan was code-named the Salt Pit.

By mid-2002, the CIA had worked out secret black-site deals with two countries, including Thailand and one East European nation, current and former officials said. But after published reports revealed the existence of the Thai site in June 2003, Thai officials insisted the CIA shut it down, said former government officials involved in the matter.

In late 2002 or early 2003, the CIA brokered deals with other countries to establish black-site prisons.

Meanwhile, the debate over the wisdom of the program continues among CIA officers, some of whom also argue that the secrecy surrounding the program is not sustainable."It's just a horrible burden," said the intelligence official.