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Bush Admits CIA-Run Prisons Exist

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 7, 2006

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The treatment of terrorism suspects, once in custody, has garnered plenty of attention in the five years since September 11, 2001. Charges of torture, extralegal use of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, and the practice of extraordinary renditions have all provided fodder for critics of the White House’s handling of the war on terror (WashPost). The latest revelation by President Bush—that at least fourteen top terrorism suspects were held in secret CIA-run prisons, so-called “black sites” located in eastern Europe—falls on the same day the Pentagon announced new revisions to the Army manual on the treatment of detainees.  

President Bush said the terrorism suspects, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged plotter of the 9/11 attacks, have provided valuable intelligence and are being held "so they cannot murder our people" (BBC). Until this point, the Bush administration has treated terrorist detainees as "unlawful combatants" undeserving of POW legal protections because of the fuzzy nature of the "war on terror" and the fact that the enemy does not abide by the accepted rules of war (i.e. they target civilians, wear no insignia, etc.). Now, the suspects will be transferred to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where Bush acknowledged they will be afforded prisoner-of-war (POW) rights under Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions. These include freedom from torture, right to due process, and access to medical care (al-Jazeera). The presence of the CIA prisons on European soil has been a source of tension between Brussels and Washington, as this Backgrounder explains.

The president will also propose new legislation to Congress this week that would create military tribunals to try terrorist suspects. Earlier this summer, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court struck down the White House’s earlier attempts to establish military war commissions on the grounds they did not uphold the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions, or U.S. military law. It is unclear what the legislation proposes (legal experts predict something more akin to a court martial), but Bush indicated he would not close the Guantanamo Bay facility, whose future was left uncertain by the Hamdan ruling. Human rights groups and European officials have lobbied the White House to close the base, which has become a "symbol of malignant U.S. power" overseas, writes CFR Senior Fellow Julia E. Sweig in the Baltimore Sun.

The treatment of U.S.-held detainees has set off fierce debate since the April 2004 release of photos detailing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib as well as the subsequent accusations of mistreatment at detainees at Bakram Air Base in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. After a delay of over a year, the Pentagon today announced new guidelines to its fourteen-year-old field manual governing the military’s treatment of prisoners in Pentagon-run prisons (CIA-run detention centers are a different matter). According to the revised manual, the treatment of detainees must uphold the Geneva Conventions; it outlaws intimidation tactics like the use of attack dogs, hoods, and "water boarding."

President Bush’s remarks are the latest in a series of speeches aimed at shoring up support for the war in Iraq ahead of November’s midterm elections. Democrats and other critics of the administration have taken great pains to demarcate the war in Iraq from the war against al-Qaeda. Republicans, meanwhile, have likened the threat posed by terrorism to the threat posed by Nazism and Fascism circa 1930. Some Democrats are also calling for a timetable to remove U.S. forces from Iraq or, failing that, a reasonable Plan B option aside from the "stay-the-course" status quo.

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