The Trump administration has drafted an executive order to reopen the secret detention and interrogation facilities known as “black sites” used for years by the Central Intelligence Agency to
detain suspected enemy combatants around the world.
Some former CIA officers and officials are wary of the plan, however.
The order would revoke President Obama’s 2009 executive order to close the secret prisons for good, and reinstate the executive order signed by George W. Bush that permitted the CIA to move forward with “a program of detention and interrogation” as long as it complied with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
“Our nation remains engaged in a global armed conflict with ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other associated international Islamist groups,” the draft order states. The word “Islamist” has replaced the word “jihadist,” which is stricken throughout the draft.
The draft, which White House press secretary Sean Spicer said had not yet crossed Trump’s desk, also crosses out “global war on terrorism” and replaces it with “fight against radical Islam.” The language change is an apparent dig at President Obama’s refusal to decisively associate Islam with terrorism.
“Congress recently imposed further restrictions on the ability of the Central Intelligence Agency to maintain an effective and lawful interrogation program,” the draft continues, pointing to the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), passed by Congress in 2015, as a “significant statuatory barrier to the resumption of the CIA interrogation program.”
The Act soldified a ban on torture and limited the intelligence community’s interrogation methods to those outlined in the Army Field Manual, which guides interrogators on how to question suspects while remaining within the boundaries of US and international law.
The legislation was supported by Gen. David Petreaus, the former Director of the CIA, who said that “our nation has paid a high price in recent decades for the information gained by the use of techniques beyond those in the field manual.” Petraeus had previously supported revisiting the issue of using enhanced interrogation methods in “special cases.”
‘A known path to disaster’
Among the NDAA’s most avid supporters was Glenn Carle, a 20-year veteran of the CIA and author of “The Interrogator” — a book about his experience interrogating a suspected al Qaeda leader at a CIA black site in North Africa in 2002.
“Reopening black sites is a known path to disaster, not safety, in a hundred ways,” Carle told Business Insider on Wednesday. “There may be some elements in the CIA that would welcome the black sites return. But the body of the institution, most officers and leaders, would find it a dangerous step to making the United States a lawless state itself.”
If enacted, the executive order would galvanize the US’ enemies and adversaries, experts say. The draft order would allow the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to stay open and continue receiving detainees. Guantanamo, along with the black sites, is seen as a symbol of the US’ war on Islam.
“Violent extremists use [Guantanamo] as a recruiting tool,” Major General Michael R. Lehnert, a retired Marine Corps general who helped set up the Guantanamo detention facility 15 years ago, wrote in Politico in 2016. “It is a symbol for many around the world of torture, injustice, and illegitimacy.”
Mike Pompeo, the new director of the CIA, said during his confirmation hearing that under his leadership the agency would not reinstate the use of harsh techniques like waterboarding. But in his written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo said he would “consult with experts at the Agency and at other organisations in the US government on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country, or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed.”
Enhanced interrogation tactics like waterboarding currently fall outside of the Army Field Manual’s charter.
“We haven’t engaged in waterboarding since 2004…We haven’t used black sites since President Bush emptied the black sites, and we’ve somehow managed to keep our country safe,” former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I have picked up precisely zero appetite for doing that again from intelligence officers.”
Black sites under the Bush Administration, Carle said, “harmed and continue to harm US interests and safety, in measurable, demonstrable, empirically established ways.”
‘A formula for grave conflict’
Reopening the secret prisons would likely harm the US’ reputation with some of its most important allies, too, intelligence professionals noted, and undermine operations that require foreign support.
“All of our key allies have shared less intelligence with the CIA, do fewer joint operations with the CIA, and support US policies less as a result of our black sites,” Carle said.
The Council of Europe launched a series of investigations into the CIA’s black sites beginning in 2006 to determine whether the agency was operating any of the secret prisons in Eastern Europe. A European Parliament committee investigated the black sites, too, but was ultimately unable to prove that any existed on European soil.
Still, Council of Europe special investigator Dick Marty wrote in 2007 that he had found evidence that the CIA “committed a whole series of illegal acts in Europe by abducting individuals, detaining them in secret locations and subjecting them to interrogation techniques tantamount to torture.” He implicated Germany and Italy in the CIA operations.
Re-opening the secret prisons could compromise intelligence operations that require backing from the US’ allies, said California congressman Adam Schiff, a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“The re-opening of the black sites…costs us relationships with allies who won’t want to cooperate with us if they believe that may lead to the repopulating of Guantanamo,” Schiff told the Daily Beast, “or if someone they help us detain will be sent to a black site.”
Carle, the former CIA officer, said that reopening the sites “is a formula for grave conflict, and for no concomitant benefit.”
“You should quote every bloody word I have said,” Carle added. “Because it will get bloody if we reopen these nightmares.”
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