Sunday, April 12, 2009

C.I.A. to Close Secret Prisons for Terror Suspects

April 10, 2009
C.I.A. to Close Secret Prisons for Terror Suspects

WASHINGTON ­ The Central Intelligence Agency said Thursday that it would decommission the secret overseas prisons where it subjected Al Qaeda prisoners to brutal interrogation methods, bringing to a symbolic close the most controversial counterterrorism program of the Bush administration.

But in a statement to employees, the agency’s director, Leon E. Panetta, said agency officers who worked in the program “should not be investigated, let alone punished” because the Justice Department under President George W. Bush had declared their actions legal.

Mr. Panetta and other top Obama administration officials have said they believe that waterboarding, the near-drowning method used in 2002 and 2003 on three prisoners, is torture, which is illegal under American and international law. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviewed 14 prisoners, said in a report made public this week that prisoners were also repeatedly slammed into walls, forced to stand for days with their arms handcuffed to the ceiling, confined in small boxes and held in frigid cells.

Mr. Panetta said the secret detention facilities were no longer in operation, but he suggested that security and maintenance had been continuing at the sites at the taxpayers’ expense since they were emptied under Mr. Bush in 2006. Terminating security contracts at the sites would save “at least $4 million,” Mr. Panetta said.

The C.I.A. has never revealed the location of its so-called black sites overseas, 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 have been held since the program was created in 2002, and about 30 were subjected to what the C.I.A. called “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

Mr. Bush transferred the remaining 14 prisoners to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in 2006 but ordered some sites maintained for future use; only two Qaeda prisoners are known to have been held for several months since then.

In his first week in office, President Obama banned coercive interrogations and ordered the C.I.A. program closed. Mr. Panetta said that the C.I.A. had not detained any terrorism suspects since he took office in February and added that any suspects captured in the future would be quickly turned over to the American military or to a suspect’s home country.

Joanne Mariner, the director of the terrorism and counterterrorism program at Human Rights Watch, said the closing of the C.I.A. prisons was “incredibly heartening and important.” But she said that a criminal investigation of the C.I.A. interrogation program was nonetheless necessary, and she expressed concern that Mr. Panetta had not made clear what evidence the C.I.A. would need to detain a suspect.

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 policies that Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney often credited with preventing a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

By contrast, President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. insist that the use of techniques they describe as torture betrayed American values, alienated allies and became a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. A task force is now studying what interrogation methods should be permitted and how to ensure that prisoners turned over to other countries will not be mistreated.

In his statement, Mr. Panetta vowed to continue the “global pursuit” of Al Qaeda and its allies but said interrogators would use traditional methods and not physical force.

“C.I.A. officers, whose knowledge of terrorist organizations is second to none, will continue to conduct debriefings using a dialogue style of questioning,” Mr. Panetta wrote. He said C.I.A. officers were required to report abuse, even if it were carried out by a cooperating foreign intelligence service.

Mr. Panetta also said the agency would no longer use contractors to conduct interrogations. Former military psychologists working under contract for the C.I.A. helped devise and conduct the previous harsh interrogations, according to former agency officials. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had proposed legislation barring contractors from conducting interrogations, saying the job was too important to outsource.

The Senate committee recently began an investigation of the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program, and senior Senate and House members have called for a broader and more public “truth commission” to investigate past counterterrorism programs.

Mr. Panetta said that the agency would cooperate with Congressional reviews but said that “fairness and wisdom” should dictate against a criminal investigation or other sanctions.

The C.I.A. statement comes at a time of continuing debate inside the Obama administration over which classified documents related to the agency’s interrogation program should be made public. After several delays, the Justice Department now has until April 16 to decide whether to make public legal opinions justifying the C.I.A.’s harsh methods.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has argued for the release of the opinions and related documents, but some current and former C.I.A. officials say they believe that wholesale disclosures could harm counterterrorism efforts and hurt morale at the agency.

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