New Evidence About Prisoners Held in Secret CIA Prisons in Poland and Romania


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 Americans’ activities.”

It 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.

In 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.

More 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 certain.

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 to Poland.

A program still shrouded in secrecy

Given 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 control.

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.”

Marty added:

Romania was 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 investigations.

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 been revealed.

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

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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