What the CIA is trying to hide

Beginning in the 1990s, and accelerating after Sept. 11, the CIA flew terrorism suspects to secret police custody in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Libya. Many of them were tortured. Starting in 2002, the CIA began operating secret prisons all over the world: Thailand, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Afghanistan, Djibouti, briefly Guantanamo Bay.

There, the agency subjected detainees to torturous “enhanced interrogation techniques” in a program designed and implemented by two contractor psychologists named James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) authorized a great deal of this brutality — but the CIA made false factual representations to OLC in order to obtain that authorization and tortured detainees in ways that were never authorized. Two CIA detainees, Manadel al-Jamadi and Gul Rahman, died as a result.

The preceding paragraphs will come as no surprise to anyone who has researched or read about the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. But if I held a security clearance, I could lose my career or face prosecution for publishing them.

The CIA takes the position that the names of countries that helped the United States operate its post-9/11 archipelago of prisons are classified. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence did not even attempt to have them declassified as it wrote its study on the CIA’s use of torture. Instead, the report refers to countries by pseudonyms — “Country A, Country B, Country C” or similar.

Even this proved to be too much transparency for the Obama administration. According to a spokesperson for Senator Dianne Feinstein, the White House and CIA redacted those pseudonyms, and similar pseudonyms used to identify CIA personnel, from the report’s executive summary. Feinstein has postponed release of the executive summary to fight these and other redactions.

An executive branch official told Reuters that using pseudonyms like “Country A” would not prevent readers from figuring out where the CIA tortured or transferred prisoners. That is true — but only because the black sites’ location has been a matter of public record for years. Human Rights Watch revealed that Poland and Romania hosted CIA prisons in 2005. Official investigations by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament confirmed this. Most recently, the European Court of Human Rights found that there was enough evidence of CIA torture in Poland to order the Polish government to compensate two detainees for abuses they suffered there.

The CIA’s use of secret prisons in Afghanistan has been known even longer. The Washington Post first reported on a secret CIA detention site at Bagram airbase in December 2002. One official involved in abuses there told the Post, “if you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job.” The use of torture at CIA prisons in Afghanistan has been confirmed by U.S. courts, in habeas corpus cases brought by Guantanamo detainees who were held there before being shipped to Cuba.

As absurd as it is to forbid the Senate from revealing CIA prisons in “Country A” and “Country B,” when court decisions have identified the countries in question, it is probably not the worst abuse of the classification power concerning the Senate report. While we know the locations of most CIA black sites, the CIA has successfully censored the details of many of the worst things it did there. At the Guantanamo military commissions, at the CIA’s insistence, the government prevents victims from describing their own torture in open court. The court room is equipped with a censorship button in case the defendants, lawyers or witnesses reveal “sources and methods.”

This spring, we learned that “sources and methods” could include not only the CIA’s authorized “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but sexual assault. A physician who had examined Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of plotting the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, testified that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and described physical symptoms consistent with “sexual torture.” But she was not permitted to describe what had happened to him.

The CIA has likely tried to censor similar incidents from the Senate report. It has also attempted to prosecute the staffers who wrote it.

If these things happened in a foreign dictatorship, we would be appalled. An out-of-control intelligence service is no more acceptable here. The White House needs to listen to the Senate and stop letting the CIA conceal the details of its own worst actions. If the President refuses, the Senate should act to disclose the information on its own.

Hawkins is the National Security Fellow for OpenTheGovernment.org. She was previously the investigator for the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.

This article previous appeared in The Hill.