In an important report for the Associated Press, Kimberley Dozier writes:
“Black sites,” the secret network of jails that grew up after the Sept. 11 attacks, are gone. But suspected terrorists are still being held under hazy circumstances with uncertain rights in secret, military-run jails across Afghanistan, where they can be interrogated for weeks without charge, according to U.S. officials who revealed details of the top-secret network to The Associated Press. The Pentagon has previously denied operating secret jails in Afghanistan, although human rights groups and former detainees have described the facilities. U.S. military and other government officials confirmed that the detention centers exist but described them as temporary holding pens whose primary purpose is to gather intelligence.
The Pentagon also has said that detainees only stay in temporary detention sites for 14 days, unless they are extended under extraordinary circumstances. But U.S. officials told the AP that detainees can be held at the temporary jails for up to nine weeks, depending on the value of information they produce. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. The most secretive of roughly 20 temporary sites is run by the military’s elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, at Bagram Air Base. It’s responsible for questioning high-value targets, the detainees suspected of top roles in the Taliban, al-Qaida or other militant groups.
Recall that when Barack Obama was inaugurated, he issued an executive order designed to shut down secret prisons. When the order was finally released, initially expansive language had been narrowed to cover only secret prisons run by the CIA. Journalists and human rights groups then began to document the existence of detention operations involving the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), including the “Tor” or “Black Prison” at Bagram. As Dozier notes, the Defense Department insists that these are intelligence gathering, not detention operations.
Two years into the Obama Administration, it’s true that the number of reports of abuse coming out of these prisons has decreased and that the nature of the abuse claims reported has softened somewhat. But the fact remains that U.S. forces are operating two detention programs in Afghanistan—one public and broadly within established international guidelines, the other, run by JSOC, not so obviously compliant. Why did Defense Secretary Gates opt for the continuation of a JSOC secret prison system in Afghanistan when he was presented with proposals for a consolidated system, as required by law? After Gates departs the Pentagon later this year, will his successor allow this dangerous practice to continue?