Report Of 'Covert' CIA Jail Sparks Human-Rights Investigation

Al Qaeda captives are reportedly being held by the U.S. in an Eastern European compound.

A European Union commission is investigating reports that the CIA has set up a network of secret jails in Eastern Europe to detain suspected terrorists.

European Union spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing said the EU would informally question the 25 national governments over the reports, according to The Associated Press. "We have to find out what is exactly happening," Abbing said. "We have all heard about this then we have to see if it is confirmed."

He said if such secret prisons existed, they would violate EU human-rights rules.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to officials familiar with the arrangement. The secret camp is part of what the newspaper said was a "covert prison system" set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at times has included sites in eight other countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democratic Eastern Europe states, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The sites house more than 100 terror suspects, 30 of them among the top al Qaeda captures.

The secret network is a key part of the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism and hinges on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services as well as keeping even the most basic information about the jails a secret from the public, foreign officials and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions, according to The Washington Post.

The existence and locations of these "black sites" are known to only a handful of U.S. officials, usually only the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.

Citing national security concerns and the value of the program, both the CIA and the White House have tried to dissuade Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions at the camps. Almost nothing is known about who is in the facilities, which interrogation methods are being used on them or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Wednesday that the president's directive banning the torture of terror suspects applies to all prisoners, even those held in a secret prison, according to an AP report. Hadley would not confirm or deny the existence of the Soviet-era location in Eastern Europe described in the Post story and said that "While we have to do what is necessary to defend the country against terrorist attacks and to win the war on terror, the president has been very clear that we're going to do that in a way that is consistent with our values. And that is why he's been very clear that the United States will not torture. ... The United States will conduct its activities in compliance with law and international obligations."

Asked about the secret prisons, Hadley said, "The fact that they are secret, assuming there are such sites, does not mean" torture would be tolerated. "Some people say that the test of your principles [is] what you do when no one's looking. And the president has insisted that whether it is in the public or it is in the private, the same principles will apply and the same principles will be respected. And to the extent people do not meet up, measure up to those principles, there will be accountability and responsibility."

Even as the Defense Department has produced many public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay (see "U.S. Soldier Receives Maximum Sentence For Role In Iraqi Prisoner-Abuse Scandal"), the CIA has yet to acknowledged the existence of its black sites, which were reportedly hastily conceived in the days after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks amid fears of a second strike.

Officials familiar with the program said that doing so could open the U.S. government to legal challenges in foreign courts and a backlash both at home and abroad, according to the Post. But with the stories of widespread prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. military, these is increasing concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human-rights groups about the shadowy CIA system. Those concerns were stoked 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 U.S. custody.

The Post did not reveal the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the program at the request of senior U.S. officials, who argued that the disclosure of their locations could disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and make them potential terrorist targets.

Because it is illegal for the U.S. government to hold prisoners in isolation in secret prisons on American soil, the CIA placed them overseas, where some of the agencies' practices would also be considered illegal under the laws of some of the host countries, in which detainees have the right to a lawyer or to mount a defense.

Those host countries, and the U.S., have signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, but CIA interrogators have been allowed to use the agency's approved "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," some of which are prohibited by the U.N. convention and U.S. military law, according to the Post. Most of the facilities were built and maintained with congressionally appropriated funds.

The top 30 al Qaeda prisoners are completely isolated from the outside world and are kept in dark, sometimes underground, cells, according to Post sources. They have no legal rights and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with them, see them, or verify their well-being.

Rep. William Thornberry, the Republican chair of a House subcommittee on intelligence oversight, said it was time for the country to decide how to handle detainees in a conflict with no clear end. "What do we do with these folks?" he said, according to The Baltimore Sun. "The country has to think about it."

If the reports are true, Senator John McCain said the problem of questionable treatment of prisoners is more widespread than he thought. McCain wrote legislation that would set standards for interrogating anyone detained by the Defense Department, but the Bush administration has been trying to block McCain's proposal, which the Senate approved 90 to 9 last month.