In a new report (PDF) by the Open Society Institute, human-rights researcher Jonathan Horowitz contrasts the official prison system that the Pentagon has constructed in Afghanistan—where they often arrange press briefings and invite journalists on tours—with the super-secret facility run on the periphery of Bagram Air Base, the “Tor” or “Black Jail.”
[M]edia outlets in late 2009 and 2010 reported allegations of detainee abuse at a smaller facility on Bagram Air Base which Afghans refer to as the “Tor Jail” or “Black Jail” that is physically distinct from DFIP or the BTIF. (“Tor” is Pashtu for “black”). These reports included accusations of sleep deprivation, holding detainees in cold cells, forced nudity, physical abuse, detaining individuals in isolation cells for longer than 30 days, and restricting the access of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—all of which raise serious concerns about U.S. compliance with domestic and international rules on detainee treatment. Media reports and commentators have described the facility as associated with Joint Special Operations Command, under the command of Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, and Defense Intelligence Agency agents from the Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center.
The Horowitz report summarizes interviews with 18 prisoners held at the Tor Jail, half of whom were prisoners during the Obama Administration. They report a consistent pattern of abuse:
• Exposure to excessive cold
• Exposure to excessive light
• Inappropriate and inadequate food
• Inadequate bedding and blanketing
• Disorientation and lack of natural light
• Sleep deprivation due to an accumulation of circumstances
• Denial of religious duties
• Lack of physical exercise
• Nudity upon arrival
• Detrimental impact from an accumulation of confinement conditions
• Facility rules and relevant Geneva Conventions rules/rights not posted
• Lack of transparency and denial of International Committee of the Red Cross access to detainees
Many of these practices cannot be reconciled with Field Manual 2-22.3 (PDF), which provides the Army’s rules for detention conditions, including those connected with human intelligence gathering. As the Horowitz report notes, some of the practices appear to be forbidden even under the special circumstances of the manual’s Appendix M.
How does the Defense Department react to the report? “The Department of Defense does not operate any ‘secret prisons,'” said Capt. Pamela Kunze, noting that while the locations of some screening facilities are classified, both the Afghan government and the Red Cross are informed about the sites. “Our field detention sites are all consistent with international and U.S. law and (Defense Department) policy, including Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions, the Detainee Treatment Act, the (Defense Department) Detainee Directive and the Army Field Manual,” she added.
Obviously the Tor Jail is no longer secret—the Horowitz report and earlier media accounts have blown its cover. Moreover, Defense Department spokesmen have consistently played semantic games in evading discussion of it. For instance, they send out spokesmen from the Task Force that operates detentions facilities in Afghanistan to insist that there is no such facility under their command. And indeed there isn’t. Similarly, spokesmen for JSOC have been heard to vigorously deny that the entity has any detentions operations, because the Tor Jail and similar arrangements are apparently categorized as filtration or intelligence gathering centers rather than detention centers. The Gates Pentagon insists that no one is held for more than fourteen days in such facilities, a claim which doesn’t always tally with the first-hand reports of released prisoners.
The Horowitz report collects and corroborates earlier media accounts concerning the Tor Jail, and it helps establish that the Obama Administration brought change to the formal, public detentions policy while continuing the abusive secret operations of JSOC and the DIA. The showcase detentions system does generally seem to operate in compliance with the Pentagon’s written guidelines, U.S. law, and international standards, but the secret system operated by JSOC and DIA is at best within hailing distance of legality, applying strained interpretations or even having license to disregard the written rules. In the end, the mere existence of a secret prison system is further proof that the Obama White House made some disturbing exceptions to its commitment to curb abuses in the detentions regime.