August 4, 2010
On Friday, the Polish Border Guard Office released a number of documents to the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights,
which, for the first time, provide details of the number of prisoners
transferred by the CIA to a secret prison in Poland between December 5,
2002 and September 22, 2003, and, in one case, the number of prisoners
who were subsequently transferred to a secret CIA prison in Romania.
The documents (available here and here)
provide important information about the secret prison at Szymany, in
north eastern Poland, and also add to what is known about the program
in Romania, which has received far less scrutiny.
The existence of the prisons was first revealed in the Washington Post on November 2, 2005, although the Post
refrained from "publishing the names of the Eastern European countries
involved in the covert program, at the request of senior US officials."
However, on November 6, 2005, Human Rights Watch
identified the countries as Poland and Romania, and stated that it had
seen "flight records showing that a Boeing 737, registration number
N313P — a plane that the CIA used to move several prisoners to and from
Europe, Afghanistan, and the Middle East in 2003 and 2004 — landed in
Poland and Romania on direct flights from Afghanistan on two occasions
in 2003 and 2004."
Although the Polish and Romanian
governments denied the claims, Swiss Senator Dick Marty, a Rapporteur
for the Council of Europe, concluded in a report in June 2007 (PDF),
based on two years’ research and interviews with over 30 current and
former members of the intelligence services in the United States and
Europe, that he had enough "evidence to state that secret detention
facilities run by the CIA did exist in Europe from 2003 to 2005, in
particular in Poland and Romania." Marty also identified both sites,
noting that the flights to Romania flew into the Mihail Kogalniceanu
military airfield, and also explained how the flights were disguised
using fake flight plans.
In September 2008, a Polish intelligence official confirmed
that between 2002 and 2005 the CIA had held terror suspects inside a
military intelligence training base in Stare Kiejkuty in north eastern
Poland. He said that only the CIA had access to the prison, and that,
although Prime Minister Leszek Miller and President Aleksander
Kwasniewski knew about it, "it was unlikely either man knew if the
prisoners were being tortured because the Poles had no control over the
was not until March 23, 2009, however, that the first details of
specific flights into Szymany were officially confirmed in Poland, when
the Polish Air Navigation Service Agency released information about a
Lockheed L100-30 Hercules, registration number N8213G, which had flown
in on February 4, 2003. This was followed up on September 16 with far more incriminating records,
demonstrating that a notorious "torture jet," a Gulfstream V,
registration number N379P, had flown into Szymany on six occasions
between February 8 and September 22, 2003 (see here and here),
and on June 2 this year, a further release identified a Gulfstream IV,
registration number N63MU, which had flown in on July 28, 2005.
Friday’s revelations by the
Polish Border Guard Office are, however, even more significant, firstly
because they include, for the first time, confirmation that N63MU flew
into Poland on December 5, 2002, and secondly, because they provide
details of the number of passengers on seven of the flights, as follows:
December 5, 2002: 8 passengers delivered
February 8, 2003: 7 passengers delivered; 4 others flown to an unknown destination
March 7, 2003: 2 passengers delivered
March 25, 2003: 1 passenger delivered
May 6, 2003: 1 passenger delivered
July 30, 2003: 1 passenger delivered
September 22, 2003: 0 passengers delivered; 5 flown to Romania
Who are the "high-value detainees" held in Poland?
In identifying these 20
passengers, the documents provide more questions than answers, as it is
not known how many of them were prisoners, and how many were US
government operatives accompanying them.
However, what can be stated with
certainty is that three of the men who arrived on December 5, 2002 were
the "high-value detainees" Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who had all been held previously in a secret CIA prison in Thailand.
the CIA Inspector General’s Report on "Counterterrorism Detention and
Interrogation Activities (September 2001-October 2003)," published in
May 2004, but only made publicly available last August (PDF),
it was stated that the "enhanced interrogation of al-Nashiri continued
through 4 December 2002" and that, "after being moved, al-Nashiri was
thought to have been withholding information", indicating that it was
at this time that he was rendered to Poland.
Moreover, in research for a
"Joint Study on Global Practices in Relation to Secret Detention in the
Context of Counter-Terrorism," published by the United Nations in
February this year (PDF, or see my cross-post here), an analyst
identified a flight
from Bangkok to Szymany, Poland, on 5 December 2002 (stopping at Dubai)
… though it was disguised under multiple layers of secrecy, including
charter and sub-contracting arrangements that would avoid there being
any discernible "fingerprints" of a United States Government operation,
as well as the filing of "dummy" flight plans.
This, clearly, is the flight identified in the newly released documents as having flown into Poland via Dubai.
In addition, according to information provided to ABC News
by "[c]urrent and former CIA officers" in December 2005, seven other
"high-value detainees," as well as Zubaydah, al-Nashiri and bin
al-Shibh, were held in Poland, while an eleventh, Hambali, was held
elsewhere (possibly on the British island of Diego Garcia,
in the Indian Ocean, which is leased to the US). ABC News identified
these men as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Waleed bin Attash, Ibn al-Shaykh
al-Libi, Abdul Rahim al-Sharqawi, Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman, Hassan
Ghul and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.
Of these seven, Hassan Ghul (whose whereabouts are still unknown, although he was reportedly held in a Pakistani prison in 2006) and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani
(who was one of 14 "high-value detainees" transferred to Guantánamo in
September 2006) were seized in 2004, outside of the period from
December 2002 to September 2003 covered by the documents, but the other
five may all have been held in Poland at this time.
In April 2009, Der Spiegel reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
(another of the 14 HVDs, and the alleged mastermind of the 9/11
attacks) was flown to Szymany on March 7, 2003, and if this is the case
(and the date, noticeably, corresponds with one of the dates in the
newly released documents), then it is possible that Mustafa al-Hawsawi,
who was seized with him on March 1, 2003 (and who was also transferred
to Guantánamo in September 2006), was the other passenger who arrived
with him on that date — although it is also, of course, possible that
the second passenger was an interrogator or a psychologist.
As for the others identified by
ABC News, Waleed bin Attash (another of the 14 HVDs), seized in
Karachi, Pakistan on April 29, 2003, could be the passenger delivered
on May 6, and Mohamed Omar Abdel-Rahman, one of the sons of Omar
Abdel-Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh," imprisoned in the US, could have been
on any of the flights. Seized in Quetta in February 2003, his detention has never been officially acknowledged by the US authorities, and his current whereabouts are unknown.
contentious are the claims that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abdul Rahim
al-Sharqawi were held in Poland. Al-Libi, the emir of the Khaldan
training camp in Afghanistan, which was closed down by the Taliban in
2000 after he refused to cede control of it to Osama bin Laden, was,
notoriously, rendered by the CIA to Egypt soon after his capture in
Afghanistan in December 2001, where, under torture, he came up with the false allegation
that Saddam Hussein was working on a chemical weapons program with
al-Qaeda, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
According to an account
by the journalist Stephen Grey, al-Libi was rendered back to
Afghanistan in November 2003, and according to another account, by a Libyan who talked to al-Libi in a prison in Tripoli before his suspicious death last May,
he was rendered from Egypt to prisons in Mauritania, Morocco and
Jordan, before his return to Afghanistan, where he was held in three
separate prisons run by, or under the control of the CIA, before his
eventual return to Libya (possibly in 2006). As a result, although it’s
possible that he was also held in Poland for a while, it is by no means
As for al-Sharqawi (also identified as Sharqwi Abdu Ali al-Hajj or Abdu Ali Sharqawi), the available reports
suggest that, after he was seized in a house raid in Pakistan in
February 2002, he was rendered to Jordan, where he was held for nearly
two years — and tortured on behalf of the CIA — before being
transferred to the CIA’s "Dark Prison" near Kabul, and then, via
Bagram, to Guantánamo, where he arrived in September 2004. As with
al-Libi, however, it is possible that at some point he was transferred
A program still shrouded in secrecy
the intense secrecy that still surrounds the "high-value detainee"
program, all that we can state with certainty is that, in May 2005,
Assistant Attorney General Stephen G. Bradbury of the Office of Legal
Counsel stated in a memo (updating the notorious "torture memos"
of August 1, 2002, by John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee) that the CIA had, by
that point, "taken custody of 94 prisoners [redacted] and ha[d]
employed enhanced techniques to varying degrees in the interrogations
of 28 of these detainees." These figures do not include prisoners
rendered to prisons in other countries that were not directly under CIA
As these are essentially the
only details about the program’s scope that have ever been made
publicly available, it is impossible to state with any certainty how
many of these 94 prisoners were held in Poland. However, research
undertaken for the UN’s secret detention report indicated that the
majority of the 94 were probably held in secret prisons in Afghanistan,
and the figure of ten men in Poland that was cited by ABC News is close
to the figure quoted by Dick Marty, who noted that "a single CIA source
told us that there were ‘up to a dozen’ high-value detainees in Poland
in 2005, but we were unable to confirm this number." If this is the
case, then the 20 passengers referred to in the newly released
documents may include just eight prisoners, with two more — Hassan Ghul
and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani — arriving in 2004, and the rest being
interrogators and psychologists.
One more question, however,
concerns the origin of one of the flights. Although the first flight
came from Bangkok via Dubai, and the rest appear to have flown directly
from Kabul, Afghanistan, the flight on February 8, 2003, which
contained seven passengers, and left the next day with four passengers
(again, perhaps US personnel) arrived from Rabat, Morocco. Given that
Morocco was one of a handful of countries
(along with Jordan, Egypt and Syria) that were used either as proxy
torture prisons or in order to "disappear" prisoners entirely, it is
possible that the flight picked up three prisoners in Morocco, and flew
them on to Poland.
If this is the case, then three possible candidates are Abu Zubair al-Haili,
a Saudi seized in Morocco in June 2002, who was known as "the Bear,"
because of his size, and who was reported to be "one of the top 25
al-Qaeda leaders," and to have had "a very close relationship to Abu
Zubaydah," plus two other Saudis seized with him. The whereabouts of
all three men have never been explained by either the US or the
Moroccan authorities, although in September 2002 the Independent reported that al-Haili was "in US custody."
Romania’s role in the CIA’s secret prison program
The final piece of the jigsaw
revealed by the new Polish documents concerns Romania, as it seems
clear that, on September 22, 2003, five prisoners were taken from the
Polish prison to what may, at the time, have been a new project in
Romania. In his report for the Council of Europe (PDF), Dick Marty stated:
For reasons of both
security and capacity, the CIA determined that the Polish strand of the
HVD program should remain limited in size. Thus a "second European
site" was sought to which the CIA could transfer its detainees with "no
major logistical overhaul". Romania, used extensively by United States
forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, had distinct
benefits in this regard: as a member of the CIA’s Counterterrorist
Centre remarked about the location of the proposed detention facility,
"our guys were familiar with the area."
developed into a site to which more detainees were transferred only as
the HVD program expanded. I understand that the Romanian "black site"
was incorporated into the program in 2003, attained its greatest
significance in 2004 and operated until the second half of 2005. The
detainees who were held in Romania belonged to a category of HVDs whose
intelligence value had been assessed as lower but in respect of whom
the Agency still considered it worthwhile pursuing further
While this avenue remains to be explored, the UN secret detention report suggested that three of the men
held in Romania may have been the Yemenis Salah Nasser Salim Ali
(seized in Indonesia in August 2003), Mohammed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah
(seized in Jordan in October 2003) and Mohammed al-Asad (seized in
Tanzania in December 2003), who, after being held in secret prisons in
Afghanistan, were transferred in April 2004 to "an unknown, modern
facility apparently run by United States officials, which was carefully
designed to induce maximum disorientation, dependence and stress in the
detainees … Research into flight durations and the observations of Mr.
al-Asad, Mr. Ali, and Mr. Bashmilah suggest that the facility was
likely located in Eastern Europe."
All three were eventually
transferred to Yemeni custody in May 2005, but they were clearly more
fortunate than the other men rendered to Romania, whose stories have
never emerged, and are as unknown as those of the five men transferred
from Poland to Romania on September 22, 2003, whose existence has just
In conclusion, while the release
of these documents provides only a tantalizing glimpse into a program
that is still shrouded in secrecy, it also provides some much needed
information to be used in an attempt to compel the Polish government,
the Romanian government, and, most of all, the US government, to stop
pretending either that these prisons did not exist, or that "we need to
look forward as opposed to looking backwards," and to come clean about both the prisons and the men held there.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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