...a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries...a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism...keeping even basic information about the system secret from the public and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions.
The existence and locations...known to only a handful of officials in the United States.
Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed...CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so...could open the U.S. government to legal challenges...and increase the risk of political condemnation...
Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody.
...defend the agency's approach...be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions...debated within the CIA, where considerable concern lingers about the legality, morality and practicality of holding even unrepentant terrorists in such isolation and secrecy...
CIA interrogators in the overseas sites are permitted to use the CIA's approved "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," some of which are prohibited by the U.N. convention and by U.S. military law. They include tactics such as "waterboarding," in which a prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning.
More than 100 suspected terrorists have been sent by the CIA into the covert system...This figure...does not include prisoners picked up in Iraq.
Most of the facilities were built and are maintained with congressionally appropriated funds, but the White House has refused to allow the CIA to brief anyone except the House and Senate intelligence committees' chairmen and vice chairmen on the program's generalities.
The idea of holding terrorists outside the U.S. legal system was not under consideration before Sept. 11, 2001, not even for Osama bin Laden...Under U.S. law, only the president can authorize a covert action...President Bush signed a sweeping finding that gave the CIA broad authorization...kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in the world...The black-site program was approved by a small circle of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials
The CIA program's original scope was to hide and interrogate the two dozen or so al Qaeda leaders believed to be directly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks...began apprehending more people whose intelligence value and links to terrorism were less certain...The original standard for consigning suspects to the invisible universe was lowered or ignored.
"It's just a horrible burden," said the intelligence official.