The CIA said Thursday that it would decommission the secret overseas prisons where it subjected al-Qaida prisoners to brutal interrogation methods, bringing to a symbolic close the most controversial counterterrorism program of the Bush administration.
But in a statement to employees, the agency’s director, Leon E. Panetta, said agency officers who worked in the program “should not be investigated, let alone punished” because the Justice Department under President George W. Bush had declared their actions legal.
Panetta and other top Obama administration officials have said they believe that waterboarding, the near-drowning method used in 2002 and 2003 on three prisoners, is torture, which is illegal under U.S. and international law. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviewed 14 prisoners, said in a report made public this week that prisoners were also repeatedly slammed into walls, forced to stand for days with their arms handcuffed to the ceiling, confined in small boxes and held in frigid cells.
Panetta said the secret detention facilities were no longer in operation, but he suggested that security and maintenance had been continuing at the taxpayers’ expense since they were emptied under Bush in 2006. Terminating security contracts at the sites would save “at least $4 million,” Panetta said.
The CIA has never revealed the location of its so-called black sites overseas, but intelligence officials, aviation records and news reports have placed them in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania and Jordan, among other countries. Agency officials have said that fewer than 100 prisoners have been held since the program was created in 2002, and about 30 were subjected to what the CIA called “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
Bush transferred the remaining 14 prisoners to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in 2006 but ordered some sites maintained for future use; only two Qaida prisoners are known to have been held for several months since then.
In his first week in office, President Barack Obama banned coercive interrogations and ordered the CIA program closed. Panetta said that the CIA had not detained any terrorism suspects since he took office in February and added that any suspects captured in the future would be quickly turned over to the U.S. military or to a suspect’s home country.
Joanne Mariner, the director of the terrorism and counterterrorism program at Human Rights Watch, said the closing of the CIA prisons was “incredibly heartening and important.” But she said that a criminal investigation of the CIA interrogation program was nonetheless necessary, and she expressed concern that Panetta had not made it clear what evidence the CIA would need to detain a suspect.
Panetta’s statement, along with a classified letter about interrogation policy that he sent Thursday to the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees, underscored the new administration’s sharp break with policies that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney often credited with preventing a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.