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    Middle East
     Nov 4, 2005
COMMENTARY
CIA's 'black sites' breed more evil
By Ehsan Ahrari 

"The US has exclusive facilities across the world to interrogate militants ... al-Tamara detention center, eight kilometers out of Rabat in Morocco, houses dozens of people arrested in Pakistan, while others are kept in Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar." - Asia Times Online, The legacy of Nek Mohammed, July 20, 2004

In an era when the US media are regularly accused of increasingly acting as the "lapdog" of the Bush administration, the Washington Post has published a very sensitive report about the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) secret dungeons - generally referred to inside that organization as "black sites" - where some of the most important al-Qaeda captives are being held.

It has named Thailand, Afghanistan, "several democracies in



eastern Europe" (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "new Europe"), and, of course, Guantanamo Bay, as places where captives have been held in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

This report underscores one of the classic paradoxes that the Bush administration is currently facing in its desperate attempt to win the global "war on terror".

If one of the crucial aspects of winning this war is to win the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world (the current uphill challenge of Karen Hughes, undersecretary of public diplomacy), then how will the United States explain its Soviet-style gulags? At the same time, as the "war on terror" continues to go badly both in Iraq and Afghanistan, how is it possible for the United States to abandon imprisoning al-Qaeda members who are sworn to cause harm to the United States and its citizens? There are no simple answers to these questions.

What is certain at this point is that the Bush administration's current policy of imprisoning these alleged terrorists (and they are alleged terrorists because they haven't been granted their day in the court) and, indeed, not even admitting that they exist, is doing grave harm to America's image, not just in the world of Islam, but all around the globe.

According to preliminary reports about these prisoners, there are about 100 (actual numbers may never be known and, more often than not, they are likely underestimated) being held under a two-tiered system. About 30, the first tier, are in the most-dangerous category and are said to be incarcerated in Thailand and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

They "exist in complete isolation from the outside world. Kept in the dark, sometimes in underground cells, they have no recognized legal rights and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with or even see them, or otherwise verify their well-being". The others, about 70 prisoners in the "second tier", and are scattered in unnamed countries in eastern Europe.

Here are some other disconcerting aspects of the Washington Post report:

  • "The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long."
  • "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 prison and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, say officials familiar with the program, could open the US government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad."
  • "The revelations of widespread prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq by the US military - which operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress - have increased concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human rights groups about the opaque CIA system. Those concerns escalated last month, when Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Porter J Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in US custody."

    It is understandable that, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, those "black sites" were hurriedly established. What is unfathomable is why they were left intact for the four years since then. A partial understanding may be developed by taking a broad overview of what transpired in this so-called "war on terror".

    The Bush administration never finished the task of eradicating al-Qaeda in 2001. Its decision to jump to Iraq before the job of fighting terrorism was done in Afghanistan left no breathing spell to revisit the proposition of doing away with those secret dungeons. When the Iraqi insurgency became deadly, the necessity of gaining access to crucial and timely intelligence became the chief driving force. During this time, the hard-nosed perspectives of Cheney and Rumsfeld to break the back of the Iraqi insurgency remained as the overall justification to maintain those secret facilities.

    According to the Washington Post, there is now a debate taking place within the CIA "about the legality, morality and practicality of holding even unrepentant terrorists in such isolation and secrecy, perhaps for the duration of their lives". Some former senior CIA insiders reported there never was a grand strategy about dealing with those secret prisons. "Everything was very reactive. That's how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don't say, 'What are we going to do with them afterwards'?"

    The most nagging question about this whole issue is why any foreign government agreed to violate the Geneva Convention against torture. Thailand, one of the countries named in the Washington Post report, has already vehemently denied any participation, but few even in East Asia believe the Thai government.

    To be fair to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he publicly asked to take charge of Afghan prisoners in US custody during his last visit to Washington. However, President George W Bush flatly denied his request. In Egypt and Jordan, torture had been a sine qua non of their brutal regimes. These newly converted democracies were not given a good lesson in democracy by the United States when it asked them to host those dungeons.

    How will this episode play in the Bush administration's campaign to "win the hearts and minds of Muslims"? It seems that no one in Washington is paying any attention to linkages between such policies and the US image in the Muslim world. How much longer should the good name of the United States be soiled before someone in Washington has the guts to say "enough"! It seems that the rhetoric of fear has taken over the good judgment of almost all public officials. US legislators are primarily driven by fear of being labeled by the right wing as "going soft" on terrorism and then not getting reelected.

    Fighting terrorism, with no regard to morality or humanity, tends to blur the distinction between those who blatantly perpetrate nefarious acts of terrorism and those who claim to fight terrorism. If that distinction is purposely blurred by those whose job it is to promote international law and human rights, then the question is, who will uphold the universal principles of justice and humanity?

    The Muslim world looks at the entire effort to win their hearts and minds as nothing short of the newest scam from Washington. They know the real battle about winning terrorism will be fought, not in the trenches of Afghanistan and the dark alleys of Iraq, but through such mundane chores as promotion of civil societies inside their polities and establishing schools that would prepare young Muslims to tackle the complicated problems of a highly globalized world, to name a few.

    Muslim youngsters want to declare jihad, not against some imaginary "infidel" who lives in New York or London, but against obscurantism, illiteracy and economic backwardness inside their own borders. Their biggest enemy is the poverty and economic underdevelopment that has been keeping anachronistic, brutal and inept autocratic regimes in power. The United States has to refocus its attention from counterterrorism to anti-terrorism by developing multifaceted policies. In the absence of such policies, it is only a matter of time before an even nastier, meaner and more brutal generation of terrorists takes over the religious discourse as well as the street in Muslim countries.

    There appears to be a serious disconnect between what the United States should do to fight and win the global "war on terror" and what it is currently doing.

    The greatest threat to the United States does not come from the "first tier" detainees of those black dungeons or even from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, often described as an Osama bin Laden associate. Rather, it is the young generation that is coming up, armed with half-baked notions of what jihad is. That young generation has no luxury of going to decent schools, playing with high-tech toys or expecting surprise gifts from Santa Claus in December. That generation is growing up in the condemned cold shacks of Somalia, the earthquake-stricken gaping holes in Pakistan-administered Kashmir or even in the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia, being taught to hate the US and the West for everything that they don't have.

    Imagine the agony and anger of the youth in Aceh, Indonesia, or in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where 75,000 people are reported to have perished in last month's earthquake. That is where the best efforts and precious capital of the civilized world must be invested to improve the lot of Muslims. Much energy is needed to be spent in the dilapidated environs of the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia. That is where the next battle of the "war on terror" will be fought. How many more black sites will - or can - the United States build to incarcerate the next generation?

    Ehsan Ahrari is an independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.

    (Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

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