Red Cross: What Did U.S. Do With Terror Suspects?

The CIA quietly moved scores of detainees out of its own "black site" prisons in recent years and turned them over to foreign governments, refusing to provide the International Red Cross any information about their treatment or whereabouts, according to a report made public this week.

Although President Bush made a brief public allusion to the transfers in September 2006, the U.S. government has never offered any accounting of precisely how many detainees were moved and what became of them. The issue became a major bone of contention between the Red Cross and the CIA, according to little-noticed language in the Feb. 14, 2007, Red Cross report to CIA acting general counsel John Rizzo that was publicly posted on a magazine Web site this week.

There is substantial reason to believe that these "ghost detainees" included some high-profile suspects, including Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan-born jihadist captured in Afghanistan whose claims about ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were prominently used by top Bush administration officials to justify the war in Iraq, according to human-rights activists who have closely followed the issue. Following the U.S. invasion, al-Libi recanted those claims, saying he fabricated his story about Iraq-Qaeda ties in order to get his interrogators to stop their abusive treatment of him. After his recantation became known in 2004, U.S. government officials dropped all public references to him and he was never heard from again—even though he was once hailed as the U.S. military's first big "catch" after the 9/11 attacks.

When Red Cross officials later pressed for information about what happened to such "ghost" detainees, U.S. government officials insisted they were returned to their country of origin under assurances they would be given "humane" treatment, the report states. But the Red Cross was never given access to the detainees—nor told anything about what happened to them after they were sent back Nor were U.S. State Department officials given details of the transfers or details about the nature of the "assurances" of humane treatment provided by foreign intelligence services to the CIA, according to a former top Bush administration official who was aware of the transfers but who asked not to be publicly identified because the issue remains highly classified. "This issue has been hiding in plain sight—but nobody has connected the dots," said the former official.

The Red Cross remains "gravely concerned" that a "significant number" of these prisoners may have been subjected to abusive treatment—and that the organization "has not received any clarification of the fate of these persons," the report states. The long-secret 41-page Red Cross report received national attention last month after journalist Mark Danner obtained a copy and wrote about it in considerable detail for The New York Review of Books. (The report was posted in its entirety this week on The New York Review of Books' Web site.)

The report includes graphic and at times gruesome accounts by high-value detainees at Guantánamo Bay—including Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others—describing how they were suffocated during waterboarding, locked in coffinlike boxes, had collars wrapped around their necks and then were smashed into the walls of their cells. The detainees also described to Red Cross interviewers how they had cold water poured over their bodies, were placed in frigid interrogation rooms, were forced to stand naked in painful stress positions for hours on end and were denied toilet access, resulting in the detainees' having to defecate and urinate on themselves, according to the report.

The Red Cross concluded, based on the "consistency" of the accounts of the detainees in separate interviews, that the prisoners had been subjected to what "amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

But the report documents the treatment of only those 14 high-value CIA detainees whom President Bush publicly announced in September 2006 had been transferred to Guantánamo. Because the Bush administration had a preexisting arrangement to permit the Red Cross access to detainees at Guantánamo, the transfer to the U.S. detention facility in Cuba allowed the organization to question those prisoners for the first time. At the time of the transfer, Bush said the CIA interrogation program had provided valuable intelligence in the war on terror and had taken "potential mass murderers off the streets before they have a chance to kill." Without offering any numbers, he also said that the CIA detention program had involved "only a limited number of terrorists at any given time." But Bush said the detention program was being ended, adding: "Once we have determined that the terrorists held by the CIA have little or no additional intelligence value, many of them have been returned to their home countries for prosecution or detention by their governments."

In fact, agency officials have confirmed that as many as 100 detainees had gone through the detention program after it was created following the 9/11 attacks. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged late last year that 33 of those detainees were subjected to "enhanced interrogation" techniques under the program. As the former Bush official pointed out, "You can do the math"—meaning that most of the detainees in CIA custody (and who were being held in secret sites around the globe) were never sent to Guantánamo. A footnote in the Red Cross report suggests that it inquired about the status of as many as 38 detainees who were in agency custody. The report concludes that the "majority" of these detainees were instead sent back to their countries of origin.

Many of these countries—such as Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Syria—have long been criticized by the U.S. State Department for their human-rights violations, particularly in their treatment of terror suspects. That has only heightened the concerns among human-rights groups about the fate of the prisoners.

"The majority of the people in the CIA program are unaccounted for," said John Sifton, a human-rights investigator and lawyer who has closely monitored the CIA program. "We don't know what happened to them."

The CIA refused to comment on any aspect of the Red Cross report. A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, added, however, that the agency under its new director, Leon Panetta, "has taken decisive steps to ensure that the CIA abides by the president's executive orders," which forbid cruel or inhumane treatment of detainees. Panetta "also has stated repeatedly that no one who took actions based on legal guidance from the Department of Justice at the time should be investigated, let alone punished."