Ghost Prisons, Ghost Courtrooms
Village Voice
by Nat Hentoff
March 25, 2007

"You need to have a president who understands you can't win this war with legal papers. We've got to use every tool at our disposal."
George W. Bush, Nightline, May 13, 2004

"What are we going to do with these people when we're finished . . . with them? Are they going to disappear?"
Jack Cloonan, senior FBI agent on the Bin Laden Squad, speaking of the terrorism suspects hidden in CIA secret cells, Nightline, May 13, 2004

"Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [resisting interrogation in a CIA secret prison] was strapped down, forcibly pushed under the water, and made to believe he might drown."
The New York Times, May 13, 2004

On September 17, 2001, the president told the National Security Council that, at the advice of then CIA director George Tenet (who was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by the president) he was going to issue a classified Memorandum of Notification that would give the CIA permission to use "special authorities to detain Al Qaeda operatives worldwide."

Without consulting Congress or any court, Bush had given the CIA the power to ignore American laws and our international treaty obligations to—among other war crimes under the Geneva Conventions—create its own secret prisons around the world. The CIA could also continue to conduct "renditions" to kidnap terrorism suspects to be interrogated in countries known for torturing their prisoners.

Those held in CIA secret prisons had no contact with the outside world: no lawyers, no visits from the Red Cross, and no word to their families. As some former CIA agents have revealed, CIA personnel involved in the "disappearances" feared they might eventually have to face American courts for their crimes against a multitude of laws.

These concerns intensified as the existence of these CIA prisons began to be revealed—first by The Washington Post's Dana Priest in 2002, followed by many other reporters, including this one, here and abroad—as well as through investigations by human rights organizations.

The names of these vanished prisoners, and what was being done to them, were still unknown, except for some details by a few released former CIA secret prisoners. But the existence of these gulags greatly tarred America's image among our allies and the rest of the world. Damage control by the administration consisted of the president, the secretary of state, and other officials denying there were such prisons, in a pious chorus of assurances that "the United States does not torture." (I offer to any cartoonist the children's story of Pinocchio, whose nose kept lengthening with each lie he told.)

On September 6, 2006, the president, at last—as condemnations of these ghost prisons multiplied around the world—admitted their existence and said that 14 "high-value" ghost prisoners would be transferred to Guantánamo to eventually be tried by military commissions.

From ghost prisons, the dread Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other purported master terrorists were brought into ghost courtrooms. At Guantánamo, the prisoners have no right to have lawyers present, to call their own witnesses, or to know the names of their accusers. (Instead of lawyers, they have "personal representatives" assigned by the military.)

The hearing for KSM marked the first time these Combatant Status Review Tribunals were closed to all reporters. The "blackout" resulted in reporters and the public getting only transcripts of the proceedings heavily redacted (censored) by the Pentagon. We are not even allowed to know the names of the five military officers, the tribunal's official reporter, or the translator in that ghost courtroom.

Amid the extensive press coverage of KSM's Gitmo "confessions" of multiple horrific crimes—including the planning of 9/11 and the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl—the Pentagon's transcript blacked out what he started to say about his treatment (torture) in the four years he was in the secret CIA prison system. Also redacted was his written statement about the abuses.

It had already been widely reported that he was "waterboarded" (made to believe he was drowning) soon after his CIA interrogation began; and it is highly probable that his future confessions in that black site were facilitated by additional "coercive interrogations." There is external evidence that KSM did indeed commit some of the atrocities in the admissions he repeated in the Gitmo ghost courtroom, but the Bush administration remains intent on not disclosing the methods used to get him to talk because they are very likely to be "crimes against humanity" in international law.

His CIA interrogators, along with all other CIA agents involved in torturing prisoners and in "renditions" by kidnapping, need not worry any longer about being prosecuted for those crimes. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 retroactively spared them any punishment for such acts. But if the details are revealed, the president would be further prosecuted in world opinion.

The president, in finally acknowledging the existence of the CIA secret prisons, emphasized that no prisoners remain in those gulags. Even if you trust what he says in these matters, the Military Commissions Act allows these prisons to stay open for future manacled guests—and for the CIA renditions to continue.

The National Association of Evangelicals has endorsed, according to the March 16 Washington Post, "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror." Its Washington policy director, Reverend Rich Cizik, emphasized: "We are the conservatives, let there be no mistake on that . . . who wholeheartedly support the war against terror, but that does not mean by any means necessary."

These evangelicals say they want to help Americans "regain our moral clarity." There is no moral clarity in the ghost courtrooms at Guantánamo, the deeply un-American Military Commissions Act, and a host of other covert missions by the most immoral presidency in our history.

But as Americans recoiled at the redacted confessions of KSM, Human Rights Watch raised a huge specter of missing moral clarity, of unanswered questions about the CIA secret prisons: their exact locations, the treatment of detainees, and the "complicity of other governments" harboring them in their countries.

And most important, what of all the other CIA ghost prisoners? Who are they? Where are they? What was done to them all these years? How have they been disposed of?

Original Text