Is it true that the CIA operates secret prisons?

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

America's favorite shoe-phone-usin', decoder ring-wearin', Osama-not-catchin' spy agency has recently developed a new side business.

According to a Nov. 2 Washington Post story, the CIA now maintains a network of secret prisons around the world. Since 2001, the CIA has operated the facilities in eight countries, including at least two in Eastern Europe. The prisons are used to hold and interrogate people suspected of being involved in terrorism.

Strictly speaking (and you know how I love to speak strictly), the prisons are not a violation of U.S. law. In fact, they exist for the sole purpose of avoiding U.S. law. By maintaining prisons outside the United States, the CIA can skirt quaint, outmoded American legal procedures such as charging people with actual crimes and giving them trials. It's probably safe to say that football games pitting guards against prisoners also are out of the question at CIA prisons.

Honoring a U.S. government request, the Washington Post story did not disclose the names of the European countries that host the prisons. The story did, however, suggest that by hosting CIA prisons, the two European nations are violating their own laws.

First of all, it's illegal in both of the unnamed nations to detain someone without charge or access to a lawyer, according to the Post. Secondly, both nations have signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (or UNCATAOCIODTOP, for short). Not only does the CIA have a recent history of torturing, injuring and even killing suspected terrorists in detention, but the Bush administration also just asked the Senate to exempt the CIA from a Senate effort to outlaw torture of prisoners in U.S. custody.

Last time I checked, the Post still hadn't ID'd the countries. However, the German news network Deutsche Welle recently ran a story quoting a representative of the group Human Rights Watch who identified Poland and Romania as two of the most likely locations of the CIA prisons. For the record, both countries deny that they host CIA prisons.

European Union officials are now trying to figure out if the prisons exist and, if they do, whether they violate EU human rights laws.

What's the official American line on this?

To find out, I called the CIA's headquarters in McLean, Va., last week. The number is 703-482-0623. I pressed five and reached a woman in the public affairs office. I asked her if the CIA had any response to the Washington Post's story. "We're not making any comment. Mmm-hmm, bye," was her response. I very nearly followed up by calling CIA Director Porter Goss. Believe it or not, there's a "Porter Goss" listed in the phone book in Goss' hometown. I chickened out, though. Antagonizing the family of a man who controls secret prisons just to get a "No comment" probably isn't the best use of my time or his.

Besides, all public signs so far indicate the story is true. After all, government officials did ask the Post to refrain from printing the names of the European countries involved. Why would they have done that if the prisons didn't exist?

Also, the State Department sent a report in October to the United Nations asserting the United States' right to hold prisoners without charging them. "There is no question that under the law of armed conflict, the United States has the authority to detain persons who have engaged in unlawful belligerence until the cessation of hostilities," the report states.

And don't forget that the CIA has long relied on foreign intelligence agencies to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists on our behalf.

Earlier this year, I (and, to be fair, about 8,000 other people) told you about Maher Arer, a Canadian of Syrian origin who was arrested in New York in 2002 while on vacation with his wife and family. Arer was sent to Syria under a CIA program known as "rendition" or "extraordinary rendition."

Rendition has been widely criticized because suspects don't get lawyers or even trials. Instead, they're shipped by the CIA to countries like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Arer was beaten and kept in isolation for a year before being released by Syria without charge. His only crime appeared to be TWA (traveling while Arab).