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Behind the scenes as U.S. empties CIA's secret prison sites
Houston Chronicle/Washington Post
September 8, 2006

WASHINGTON — Shackled and hooded, 14 men in secret CIA custody were gathered one by one from locations across the world last weekend and flown to a rallying point to await one more flight. For some of the prisoners, it was their third or fourth journey to yet another unknown destination since President Bush approved a covert plan for them to disappear into CIA facilities hidden throughout Eastern Europe and Asia.

On Sunday night, the men — three Pakistanis, two Yemenis, two Saudis, two Malaysians, a Palestinian, a Libyan, a Somali, an Indonesian and a Tanzanian — were sedated and placed together onto a flight to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They arrived Labor Day morning, an unusually quiet time at the Pentagon-run facility.

The arrival of the prisoners, witnessed by few beyond the CIA officers accompanying them, marked the end of a five-year effort by the Bush administration to conceal as many as 100 al-Qaida suspects from the world and to shield the agency's interrogation tactics and facilities from public scrutiny. It was also the result of nearly two years of debate within the Bush White House, touched off by a personal plea from British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the release of British citizens in U.S. custody.

The debate divided the president's key advisers, and kept open the CIA's "black sites" until President Bush himself, under the advice of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, ordered the facilities emptied for now, and possibly for good.

In a series of interviews, often on the condition of anonymity, key players from throughout the administration agreed to discuss events that led to the unraveling of one of the president's most controversial programs. Drawing on recollections and portions of personal notes, officials said major factors that pushed the president toward Wednesday's announcement were demands from allies to close sites down, an increased urgency from the CIA to find a longer term solution to detentions and an appeal from Rice to Bush to consider the administration's legacy.

Favor for a friend

For much of 2004, British officials pushed their counter- parts at the State Department and the Pentagon to consider releasing the last four Britons held at Guantanamo Bay. Blair's government was under pressure at home to get the men back and to denounce the Cuban facility on humanitarian grounds.

Senior lawyers representing the Office of the Vice President, the State Department, the Justice Department, the CIA and the Pentagon argued over the request. They had agreed earlier that year to release five suspects, but couldn't agree on the remaining four.

The issue crystalized growing differences of opinion among Bush's top advisers, with Rice and Vice President Cheney increasingly at odds over the administration's detainee policies.

As debate dragged on, no consensus was ever sent to Bush for a decision. Finally, Blair raised it with the president during a trip to Washington that November. Officials briefed on their discussions said the president agreed immediately. "Blair said he really needed these guys and the president was happy to help him," said one senior official who was involved in the deliberations.

Two months later, in January 2005, the four men were sent home to Britain and immediately freed. But as Cheney's lawyer David Addington had predicted, the decision opened up the floodgates of Guantanamo Bay. In the following months, every European prisoner was sent home and 100 detainees were released.

Policymakers including Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who were heavily invested in the detainee program, were losing ground.

Hamdan goes to court

A turning point in the debate, senior administration officials said, came 10 months later when the Washington Post reported the existence of the secret CIA prisons in November 2005. At the time the White House refused to confirm or deny the program, but said the report had harmed national security.

European leaders publicly demanded explanations and privately sought an end to both the CIA program and incarcerations without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

The detainee issue dominated Rice's winter trip to Europe and became a prime subject between Bush and his European counterparts. After meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in January of this year, Bush complained about the public "misperceptions" about Guantanamo. But by June, Bush bluntly asserted at a news conference, "I'd like to close Guantanamo." He said that the facility had become an excuse for "some of our friends" to say the United States was not upholding its values.

At the same time, Gen. Michael Hayden had taken over as CIA director and suggested in a speech to agency staff that he was going to review the viability of the CIA's secret program.

That review all but collapsed later in June when the Supreme Court ruled, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that detainees must be put under the protections of the Geneva Conventions, in effect declaring the CIA's program illegal.

Even though comments from the justices at oral argument had suggested that they might rule against the administration's detainee policies, the White House counsel had made no contingency plans for a loss and was stunned by the decision.

"The court's decision was much more sweeping than we expected," a senior White House official said Thursday.

Most senior Justice Department lawyers believed the ruling would force the government to close the CIA's "black sites." Other lawyers disagreed.

In a series of emergency meetings with top government lawyers after the Hamdan ruling, the CIA's legal adviser, John Rizzo, told his colleagues that the program was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain anyway. Since its disclosure in press reports, several countries had asked the CIA to close prisons on their soil and other countries had refused requests to host new ones. Other lawyers noted that it had simply damaged the ability of the U.S. intelligence agencies to work with important allies on almost anything.

The lawyers ended up agreeing that the CIA could not hold the suspects indefinitely. "There had to be an end game," said one official close to the deliberations.

As a compromise, they agreed that in principle the Hamdan decision didn't mean the sites couldn't exist, it just meant that the CIA could no longer handle suspects outside the boundaries of the Geneva Conventions.

Hamdan "forced our hand," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett, the only administration official who agreed to speak on the record. "We knew there was going to have to be some acknowledgment that they were in our hands." Also, he said, the intelligence value of interrogations had diminished to the point where the administration thought "we could bring them to justice."

The president speaks

After nearly two dozen meetings of senior policymakers on the detainee issue, Bush convened his principal advisers at the end of August to make a final decision.

Several had moved far away from the impassioned defenses of secret prisons that they had mounted a year earlier.

Rice had had a series of conversations with Bush on the detainee issue, but at that National Security Council meeting she made her final pitch for a change in policy.

In front of her colleagues, according to several who attended, she said that it was important for the United States to bring the issue to closure, both on foreign policy grounds and moral grounds. She noted that the secret sites were having a corrosive effect on the nation's ability to win cooperation on a range of intelligence issues. Rice urged the president to resolve the issue rather than hand it off to his successor.

The president agreed.

"This is a paradigm shift for the administration," said one senior official who was involved.

The core of Rice's argument appeared in the penultimate paragraph of the president's speech.

"America is a nation of law," Bush said. He added that he had heard the concerns of other world leaders about the administration's detention policies. "I'll continue to work with the international community to construct a common foundation to defend our nations and protect our freedoms."

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