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The Toronto Star July 2, 2005

Island paradise or torture chamber?

CIA under fire for secret detentions

Indian Ocean atoll alleged abuse site

By Lynda Hurst

From satellite pictures, Diego Garcia looks like paradise.

The small, secluded atoll in the Indian Ocean, with its coral beaches, turquoise waters and vast lagoon in the centre, is 1,600 kilometres from land in any direction.

A perfect hideaway. But no one is allowed to set foot on it.

The little-known British possession, leased to the United States in 1970, was a major military staging post in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It continues to be, in effect, a floating aircraft carrier, housing 1,700 personnel who call it Camp Justice.

But intelligence analysts say Diego Garcia's geographic isolation is now being exploited for other, darker purposes.

They claim it is one in a network of secret detention centres being operated by the Central Intelligence Agency to interrogate high-value terrorist suspects beyond the reach of American or international law.

These prisoners are known as "ghost detainees" or the "new disappeared," and they're being subjected to treatment that makes the abuses at the military-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and Guantanamo Bay camp in Cuba look small-time, say intelligence analysts.

Last year, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller said CIA interrogation techniques "violate all American anti-torture laws," and instructed FBI agents to step outside of the room when the CIA steps in.

Analysts say there are at least a score of unacknowledged facilities around the world. Among them, several in Afghanistan (one known as "the pit") and Iraq, in Pakistan, Jordan, in a restricted unit at Guantanamo, and one, they suspect, on Diego Garcia, where two navy prison ships ferry prisoners in and out.

This week, the United Nations said it will investigate a number of allegations from reliable sources that the U.S. is detaining terrorist suspects in undeclared holding facilities, including on board ships believed to be in the Indian Ocean.

"Diego Garcia is an obvious place for a secret facility," says American defence analyst John Pike. "They want somewhere that's difficult to escape from, difficult to attack, not visible to prying eyes and where a lot of other activity is going on. Diego Garcia is ideal."

The British government has flatly denied detainees are being held covertly on the island. When asked last year, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state Lawrence DiRita didn't deny it outright, saying only, "I don't know. I simply don't know."

What is known about CIA activities is that, since 2001, the agency has been transferring or "rendering" suspects to third countries for aggressive interrogation.

Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar was snatched in New York and dispatched to Syria, where he says he was tortured. Last month, an Italian judge ordered the arrest of 13 CIA agents and operatives on charges they seized an Egyptian cleric on a Milan street two years ago and flew him to Egypt for interrogation.

The rendition policy was initiated in 1998 by the Clinton White House after the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by terrorists. The intent, says intelligence specialist Wesley Wark, was to bring Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects to the U.S. for prosecution.

"It was legalized kidnapping," he says, "and they did grab a few and bring them back. But after 9/11, the policy got changed to `extraordinary rendition' and suspects began being shipped, not to the U.S. and into the legal system, but elsewhere. And it started to be used for a whole assortment of people."

Since 2001, according to The New York Times, between 100 and 150 individuals have been rendered to Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, all countries with records of practising torture.

But rendering means giving up control to the other country, says Pike, which in turn means only low-value suspects are transferred.

"The CIA keeps the high-level ones to themselves," he says. "And they work them over."

It's known that in August of 2002, the CIA approved the adoption of "enhanced" interrogation measures and stress and duress techniques. They're believed to include "water-boarding" — in which a prisoner's head is forced under water until the point of drowning — denial of pain medication and mock burial. A month later, Cofer Black, then CIA director of operations and now head of counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, told the congressional intelligence committee he couldn't elaborate on what was "highly classified" information: "All you need to know is, there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves came off."

Despite the contention of many specialists that torture doesn't yield valuable evidence, Pike says the agency firmly believes in "hostile interrogation."

"It would be nice," he says, "to think that torture was inhumane, illegal and ineffective, but the dilemma is, it is effective. The CIA knows that from past experience."

Because the agency operates outside the law, doing what the government doesn't want to be publicly associated with, "it isn't bound by international treaties," says Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

The White House has said it doesn't consider that the "unlawful combatants" in the war on terror (now referred to as "security detainees") are covered by the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which prohibits "violence to life and person, cruel treatment and torture."

But critics point out the convention also states "no one in enemy hands can fall outside the law."

Moreover, they say the U.S. is also bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified a decade ago. The covenant prohibits incommunicado detention, requires that detention centres be officially recognized, that identities be registered, that families be told of the detention and that the times and places of all interrogations and names of those present be documented.

None of these provisions is being met with the ghost prisoners, says David Danzig, spokesman for Human Rights First, a legal advocacy group that has produced two reports on U.S. treatment of suspects, both those in the military system and the unacknowledged phantom system. Danzig says the International Red Cross has a list of 36 individuals, almost exclusively high-value detainees, that the U.S. admits it is holding but will not say where.

"But our conversations with government officials, former detainees and others suggest it's safe to say hundreds, probably thousands, is more accurate for the number of people being held in secret."

Among them, it's claimed, are three top Al Qaeda lieutenants: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (who Pike believes is being held on Diego Garcia), Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida. The Southeast Asian terrorist Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, is also one of the disappeared, according to Danzig's organization and another advocacy groups.

They have little doubt the secrecy surrounding their detention makes the use of torture "not only likely, but inevitable."

In a blistering report, Beyond the Wire, released in March, Human Rights First outlined the suspected scope of the global network of covert detention facilities. "The U.S. government is holding prisoners in a secret system of offshore prisons beyond the reach of adequate supervision, accountability or law," it stated, referring to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison as "just the tip of the iceberg."

Since the Abu Ghraib revelations last year, there have been three major Pentagon reports on the treatment of detainees in military prisons and a new manual on interrogation techniques was introduced in April. Human Rights First wants a full-scale investigation into the covert CIA detention network and use of rendering, and for months has been calling for an independent bipartisan inquiry akin to the 9/11 commission.

But a veil of silence continues to shroud the ghost detainees, says Danzig, head of the organization's End Torture campaign.

"Both the (Bush) administration and the CIA are stonewalling and blocking efforts to get a credible investigation," he says. "The Pentagon reports are enough, they say. Though there is evidence of a lot of wrongdoing, the CIA detention centres are a giant black hole."

But Danzig says "the landscape is starting to change."

Calls for a commission are starting to grow in congressional circles, with a major Republican, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, joining in last week. The U.S. needs "to prove to the world that we are a rule-of-law nation," he said.

Even conservative Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, normally a staunch defender of Bush administration policies, says an independent commission should be set up to investigate U.S. detainee policy "across the board."

"The president must take the offensive on this, or else the country's image will continue to suffer and the jihadists and their enablers will win another victory."

It's alarming, if not surprising, that so little is known about secret detention sites, says lawyer Noah Novogrodsky, director of the University of Toronto International Human Rights Program. But that they exist he has no doubt. When a regime is threatened by something it can't identify, by an unknown enemy, it counters by throwing in everything, including the kitchen sink, he says.

"It would be hard to systematically torture in known detention centres, but you can't track a secret world. The secret locales are one part of the whole picture, the dark underbelly, and they're absolutely outside of the law."


Copyright 2005, Toronto Star Newspapers Limited