Commandos Hold Afghan Detainees in Secret Jails

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Under President Obama, the CIA is barred from holding terrorism detainees in secret prisons. That’s the Joint Special Operations Command’s job now.

The Associated Press’ star intelligence reporter, Kimberly Dozier, has a mammoth piece out describing a constellation of 20 detention centers run by the elite unit in Afghanistan.

JSOC can keep an insurgent inside them for up to nine weeks for interrogation without either turning him over to the main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan or obtaining a waiver from “either the defense secretary or the president himself” to hold him longer, in the hopes of learning Taliban secrets.

I toured the Detention Facility at Parwan — the big prison abutting Bagram Air Field — last year.

Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, then the deputy commander of detention operations, told me point blank that no off-the-books jails exist there.


Dozier reports otherwise: the “most secretive” is “a short drive” away, at Bagram. That’s for interrogating people “suspected of top roles in the Taliban, al-Qaida or other militant groups.”

Human rights groups have been sounding the alarm about these detention centers since 2009.

Detainees who claim to have gone through the sites have told them about abuses inside the so-called “Black Jails” ranging from sleep deprivation to punching.

Human Rights First’s Daphne Eviatar (disclosure: a former colleague of mine at the Washington Independent) tells Dozier that inmates at the JSOC sites are “forced to strip naked, then kept in solitary confinement in windowless, often cold cells with lights on 24 hours a day.”

All of that is supposed to be banned under Obama’s January 2009 executive order on interrogations.

Martins and other U.S. officers explained to me that “field detention sites” exist, where soldiers interrogate Taliban militants before either releasing them or sending them on to continued detention at the Parwan center.

But those sites hold detainees only for “small number of days,” he said — not the nine week maximum that Dozier reports.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Simon Schorno, also told me last year that the Red Cross has access to “U.S.-run field detention sites in Afghanistan” as well as the Parwan center.

Dozier couldn’t confirm with the Red Cross that they’ve had access to the JSOC sites, but she reports that Gen. David Petraeus, NATO commander in Afghanistan, wanted to let the Red Cross visit the JSOC facility at Bagram “last summer.”

It’s obviously unclear what happens in those sites. But away from prying eyes, the U.S. has for nearly a decade accumulated a record of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay that became both a national disgrace and a liability for the U.S. efforts at convincing Muslims worldwide to reject the brutality of al-Qaida.

And JSOC units have run torture chambers before. In Iraq, JSOC ran the infamous Camp Nama, whose motto was “No Blood, No Foul.”

In October, Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for the U.S. detention command in Afghanistan, told me that “like our theater internment facilities, our field detention sites are all consistent with international and U.S. law and DoD policy, including Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions, the Detainee Treatment Act, the DoD Detainee Directive and the Army Field Manual.”

Kunze hasn’t yet responded to a follow-up query about Dozier’s report. (See update below.) Neither have White House officials. Dozier put the president square in the sights of her piece, reporting that any JSOC detention after nine weeks requires Obama’s approval.

So far, no detainee’s case has risen to that level. But the process as reported suggests that Obama hasn’t banned secret abusive detentions as much as he’s changed which agency conducts them.

Clearly the White House is happy with JSOC’s performance in Afghanistan. Its commander, Vice. Adm. William McRaven, has been nominated to lead the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Don’t expect the Democratic-controlled Senate to grill McRaven on the jails. Its kid-glove treatment of former JSOC chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal over Camp Nama heralded its see-no-evil approach to torture now that a Democratic president runs the show.


*Update: *After this post went live, Kunze emailed to defer comment to the Pentagon.

A Pentagon spokeswoman had no substantive comment, citing preparation for what appeared to be an imminent government shutdown. I’ve also corrected Brig. Gen. Martin’s former title.


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