From the July 2004 Idaho Observer:

Report claims U.S. holding thousands in secret global prison system

by Don Harkins

The Bush administration is holding thousands prisoners in at least two-dozen detention facilities all over the world, more than half of which are operating in secret, a human rights group reported June 18, 2004.

Human Rights First (HRF), formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, has released a report listing 13 secret off-shore detention centers being operated by the U.S. These facilities are effectively functioning beyond the reach of U.S. law, international law and international treaty.

Located in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and on two U.S. Navy ships, HRN claims the facilities are not officially recognized. “The United States government is holding prisoners in a secret system of off-shore prisons beyond the reach of adequate supervision, accountability, or law,” said HRF Director of U.S. Law and Security program Deborah Pearlstein.

The HRF report, entitled, “Ending Secret Detentions,” commented that detention centers operating in total secrecy are “inappropriate” and that “abuse is not only likely, but inevitable” under such circumstances.

The report also listed 17 detention centers that are officially recognized by the Bush administration -- including the one at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Called “Gitmo” in military circles, the facility at Guantanamo Bay has been the subject of much controversy and the object of a recent Supreme Court decision. Film footage and witness testimony show that prisoners in the war on terror held in Gitmo are routinely subjected to extreme heat, extreme cold, sleep deprivation, humiliation and physical torture.

Other officially recognized detention camps include two in Afghanistan, 13 in Iraq (including Abu Ghraib) and one in Charleston, South Carolina.

CIA contractor charged with abuse

In the current scandal over prisoner abuse that has been raging since May, a CIA contractor became the first civilian to face criminal charges related to U.S. treatment of overseas prisoners.

“Former U.S. Army Ranger David Passaro, 38, is accused of using his hands, feet and a flashlight to beat a detainee who later died at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan,” reported the Toronto Star.

Passaro is charged with two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault resulting in serious bodily injury. Passaro was in Afghanistan working for the CIA when he allegedly “interrogated” Adul Wali. Wali, who had voluntarily surrendered to U.S. military authority, died in his cell on June, 21, 2003 after two days of “interrogation” about rocket attacks on the U.S. base near Asadabad, close to the Pakistan border.

Passaro could face up to 40 years in prison and fines of $1 million (U.S.) if convicted.

The problem is systemic

“The abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib cannot be addressed in isolation,” said Pearlstein, indicating that the ill-treatment of prisoners in the Bush administration's “war on terror” is the rule, rather than the exception.

The HRF report is supported with news that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered military officials to hold a suspect in a prison near Baghdad without telling the Red Cross. According to the Toronto Star, “Pearlstein said this would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions and Defense Department directives.”

Rumsfeld defended his decision to hold the prisoner without notifying international authorities by claiming it was at the request of former CIA director George Tenet. Rumsfeld did state, however, that, “There is no question at all ... that he [the dead detainee] received humane treatment.”

Pearlstein called for the U.S. authorities to end “secret detentions,” provide a list of prisoners, investigate abuses and allow the International Committee of the Red Cross unfettered access to detainees.


As the Abu Ghraib controversy was unfolding, President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld claimed ignorance of the human rights atrocities the entire world now knows were being committed there.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, referring to the four-count indictment against Passaro, told a news conference in Washington: “The United States will not tolerate criminal acts of brutality.”

“We take allegations of wrongdoing very seriously,” CIA spokesperson Mark Mansfield said in relation to the Passaro indictment. “The CIA does not support or condone unlawful activities of any sort and has an obligation to report possible violations of the law to the appropriate authorities,” he added.

Curiously, the Washington Post reported that a two-inch stack of documents was recently released by the White House demonstrating that the Bush administration, at the highest levels, approved the use of interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib. By logical extension, such inhumane techniques are likely being used to coerce confessions from prisoners being held at secret detention facilities as well. “According to press reports, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved, among other things: putting detainees in stress positions; hooding; mild physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest, and pushing; 20-hour interrogations; depriving prisoners of religious items and forcing them to shave their beards and heads; stripping detainees naked; using dogs to induce stress; manipulating temperature controls; and isolating prisoners for up to 30 days,” reported the Post.

Pearlstein said, “The documents released yesterday squarely conflict with the administration's repeated assertions that it treats detainees humanely and in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, the documents show that in an attempt to extract information from detainees, the administration authorized cruel and degrading treatment, in violation of its treaty obligations.”

Since WWII, the U.S. has signed several international treaties regarding the humane treatment of prisoners (The Idaho Observer, June, 2004). The evidence shows that the U.S. currently prefers to violate all of those treaties as if it has no obligation to honor them.

Further discord between current U.S. treatment of prisoners and its international treaty obligations surfaced last month in a 52-page Pentagon report, prepared for Rumsfeld, that claimed the president has constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to order the torture of enemy combatants (The Idaho Observer, June, 2004).

At greater risk

In a section of the report entitled, “The Purpose Behind the Law,” the HRF observed that U.S. ill-treatment of prisoners increases the likelihood U.S. forces abroad will be captured and tortured in retribution. The observation is supported by recent events describing the capture, torture and beheading of American nationals by those claiming to be insurgents opposed to U.S. occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

HRF also noted that the criminal abuse of detainees severely undermines the U.S.'s ability to forge alliances with other nations to help fight the “war on terrorism.”

“The United States' practices in its global network of detention facilities also has a deeply negative effect on the U.S. ability to combat the threat of terrorism, which depends critically on a visible demonstration that U.S. deeds match its words in supporting democracy and human rights,” wrote HRF.

In order to claim the moral high ground and international support in its war on terror, reduce the risk of capture, torture and execution among U.S. nationals abroad, the Bush administration must immediately adopt policies that insure the humane treatment of prisoners. The HRF recommended the following:

(1) Grant the International Community of the Red Cross (ICRC) unrestricted access to all U.S.-controlled detention facilities around the world.

(2) Disclose to Congress and the ICRC the location of all U.S.-controlled detention facilities worldwide, and provide a regular accounting of the number and nationality of all prisoners being held.

(3) Ordering a thorough, comprehensive, and independent investigation of all U.S.-controlled detention facilities, and submitting the findings of the investigation to Congress.

(4) Taking all necessary steps to inform the immediate families of those detained of their relatives' capture, location, legal status, and condition of health.

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