CIA facility inside Guantanamo prison


US: Within the heavily-guarded perimeters of the US Defence Department's much-discussed Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, the CIA has maintained a detention facility for top al-Qaeda captives that has never been mentioned in public, according to military and intelligence officers.

The buildings used by the CIA are shrouded by high fences covered with thick green mesh plastic and ringed with floodlights, officials said. They sit within the larger Camp Echo complex, which was erected to house the Defence Department's high-value detainees and those awaiting military trials on terrorism charges.

The facility has housed detainees from Pakistan, west Africa, Yemen and other countries under the strictest secrecy, the sources said. "People are constantly leaving and coming," said one US official who visited the base in recent months. It is unclear whether the facility is still in operation today.

Most international terrorism suspects in US custody are held not by the CIA but by the Defence Department at the Guantanamo Bay prison. They are guaranteed access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and, as a result of a US Supreme Court ruling this year, have the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts.

CIA detainees, by contrast, are held under separate rules and far greater secrecy. Under a presidential directive and the approval of administration lawyers, the CIA is allowed to capture and hold certain classes of suspects without accounting for them in any public way and without revealing the rules for their treatment. The roster of CIA prisoners is not public, but current and former US intelligence officials say the agency holds the most valuable al-Qaeda leaders and many mid-level members with knowledge of the group's logistics, financing and regional operations.

The CIA facility at the Guantanamo Bay prison was constructed over the past year as the agency confronted one of its toughest problems: where to hold terrorists for interrogations that could last for years.

During the 1990s, the CIA typically had custody of half a dozen terrorists at any time and usually kept them in foreign prisons, mostly in Egypt and Jordan. But just two months after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, CIA paramilitary teams working with foreign intelligence services had arrested dozens of people thought to have knowledge of upcoming attacks on the US.

The CIA is believed to be holding about three dozen al-Qaeda leaders in undisclosed locations, US security officials say. Among them are 9/11 plotters Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida and the leader of Southeast Asia's Islamic terrorist movement, Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin.

CIA detention facilities have been located on an off-limits corner of the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, on ships at sea and on Britain's Diego Garcia Island.

Maintaining facilities in foreign countries is difficult, however, said CIA officials. Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida were taken to Thailand immediately after capture. The Thai government eventually insisted that they be transferred elsewhere.

The US base at Guantanamo Bay thus provided the CIA with an isolated venue devoid of the sensitive international politics. But it came with strings attached.

The US military, which controls the base, required the agency to register all detainees, abide by military detention standards and permit the ICRC some level of access.

Army officials investigating the Abu Ghraib prison scandal concluded that the CIA had held "ghost detainees" at the prison, inmates who were not registered or officially acknowledged, a violation of military rules.

Asked about the arrangement with the CIA at Guantanamo Bay, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not comment on operations of other agencies. Pentagon policy "is that all detainees, including those at Guantanamo, are treated humanely", he added.