November 4, 2005
On November 2, the Washington Post carried an explosive front-page story about secret Eastern European prisons set up by the CIA for the interrogation of terrorism suspects. While the Post article, by reporter Dana Priest, gave readers plenty of details, it also withheld the most crucial information—the location of these secret prisons—at the request of government officials.
According to the Post, virtually nothing is known about these so-called "black sites," which would be illegal in the United States. Given the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, news that the U.S. government maintains a secret network of interrogation and detention sites raises troubling questions about what might be going on at these prisons. The Post reports that "officials familiar with the program" acknowledge that disclosure of the secret prison program "could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad."
But the Washington Post did its part to minimize those potential risks:
"The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation."
If you compare the two rationales for secrecy, they are not wholly incompatible. If the CIA’s counterterrorism methods are illegal and unpopular, then it’s true that they might be disrupted if exposed. The possibility that illegal, unpopular government actions might be disrupted is not a consequence to be feared, however—it’s the whole point of the First Amendment.
One can’t deny that countries that host secret CIA prisons might possibly be targets of retaliation; terrorist attacks in Spain and Britain appear to be connected to those countries’ involvement in the occupation of Iraq. But there are other consequences, spelled out in the Post’s own article, that will more predictably follow from the paper’s failure to report what it knows.
Without the basic fact of where these prisons are, it’s difficult if not impossible for "legal challenges" or "political condemnation" to force them to close. As the Post notes, there has been "widespread prisoner abuse" in U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan—including prisoners who have apparently been tortured to death—even though the military "operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress." Given that Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss are seeking to exempt the CIA from legislation that would prohibit "cruel and degrading treatment" of prisoners, and that CIA-approved "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" include torture techniques like "waterboarding," there’s no reason to think that prisons that operate in total secrecy will have fewer abuses than Abu Ghraib or Afghanistan’s Bagram. Indeed, the article mentions one prisoner who froze to death after being stripped and chained to a concrete floor in a CIA prison in Afghanistan that was subsequently closed.
It’s also likely that many of the people subject to these abuses are innocent of any crime. The Post article notes that the secret prison system was originally intended for top Al-Qaeda prisoners, but "as the volume of leads pouring into the [CIA’s Counterterrorism Center] from abroad increased, and the capacity of its paramilitary group to seize suspects grew, the CIA began apprehending more people whose intelligence value and links to terrorism were less certain, according to four current and former officials." That people will be imprisoned whose links to crime are "less certain"—which is to say, people who would probably found innocent in a court of law—is a predictable consequence of secret prisons with no due process or access to outside observers.
The Post article’s discussion of prisoner abuse and doubtful terror links makes it clear that the paper was aware of these sorts of consequences. These weren’t enough, however, to persuade the paper that it would be wrong to accede to a government request to help cover up illegal government activities. (As the article notes, "Legal experts and intelligence officials said that the CIA’s internment practices…would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries, where detainees have rights to have a lawyer or to mount a defense against allegations of wrongdoing.")
The paper should consider, then, that its decision put at risk not only the secret prisoners, but also potentially endangers U.S. soldiers and civilians. As a Newsday investigation concluded (10/31/05), "the United States is detaining enough innocent Afghans in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda that it is seriously undermining popular support for its presence in Afghanistan." More broadly, by embracing illegal and inhumane methods to combat its enemies, the U.S. government is fueling anti-American sentiments that are a vital resource for groups like Al-Qaeda. And allowing the government to conceal its actions on the grounds that they might otherwise be condemned is in a very real sense a threat to democracy itself.
The Post’s decision has struck some experts as enormously significant. National Security Archive Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh, told CJR Daily (11/2/05), "This is probably the most important newspaper capitulation since [the New York Times] yielded to JFK’s call for them not to run the full story of planning for the Bay of Pigs. By withholding the country names, the Post is directly enabling the rendition, secret detention, and torture of prisoners at these locations to continue. That is a ghastly responsibility."
But the Post is not the only U.S. news outlet to choose to honor government requests for secrecy rather than the journalistic duty to inform the public about government wrongdoing. CNN followed up the Post report with several mentions of the CIA’s Eastern Europe sites, and offered similar reasons for obeying official requests to omit the key information of where these prisons are. CNN reporter David Ensor said (11/2/05), "U.S. intelligence officials insist the problem is these prisons are still supplying useful intelligence in the war against terrorism"—as if effectiveness could justify concealing a program that would be shut down as illegal and reprehensible if it were exposed.
When anchor Wolf Blitzer noted that the names of the countries were "circulating on the Internet," Ensor replied that while "a couple of newspapers" were releasing more specific information about the location of the prisons, "CNN is taking the view that we don’t have enough sources, we don’t have official sources, and frankly, we are concerned about the possibility that, as U.S. officials have said to us, lives could be as stake." Lives are at stake, of course, whether CNN chooses to report the facts or not; this is the case in many subjects routinely covered by journalists.
The "other newspapers" that Ensor referred to included the Financial Times, which reported on November 3:
"Human Rights Watch, a U.S. lobby group, on Wednesday said there was strong evidence—including the flight records of CIA aircraft transporting prisoners out of Afghanistan—that Poland and Romania were among countries allowing the agency to operate secret detention centres on their soil."
Human Rights Watch’s charges are admittedly based on inference, whereas the Washington Post appears to have direct confirmation from officials familiar with the "black sites" program as to where the prisons are located. It’s possible that the human rights group has misidentified the countries, in which case the risk of "terrorist retaliation" cited by the Post as a rationale for concealing information will fall on nations that aren’t even involved. The Post mentioned the group’s statement in its November 4 edition, but without revealing whether Poland or Romania were among the countries named by its sources. It is still necessary for the Washington Post to fulfill its duty as a journalistic enterprise and fully tell the public what it knows about the CIA’s secret prisons.
Contact the Washington Post and let them know that withholding information about the CIA’s secret prisons at the request of the U.S. government was the wrong journalistic decision.
Washington Post Ombudsman