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The Washington Post's secret CIA prisons story

Len Downie

Editor, The Washington Post

Len Downie

... [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest's stories on the secret prisons: The reporting for that, before they were published, got the attention, as I understand it, of the administration.

This is not unusual. Dana's very, very deeply sourced throughout the military and throughout the intelligence services, ... and a number of these sources were concerned about some of the policies that the administration was carrying out in the war against terrorism. ... These are people who, as Dana describes them, are very strong proponents of the war against terrorism; they're active in the war against terrorism. But they're concerned that some of these methods were counterproductive. ... So for these reasons they would cooperate with her when she'd ask questions about things that added up to some of these stories. ...

As is often the case with this kind of reporting, somewhere along the line, her reporting reaches a high enough level that officials ... will raise questions about whether or not some of the things she knows would, in their minds, harm national security if we publish them. In some cases, it's things that they know are embarrassing to them, or things that they know will cause them to have to make changes, maybe expensive changes, in what they're doing.

For instance, these secret prisons in Eastern Europe, as far as we know, by and large have been shut down; people have been moved elsewhere. That's inconvenient for the government, so they would rather not have that happen. They'd rather have us not publish the story.

In other cases, they might raise legitimate national security concerns where we would agree that yes, this particular piece of information is not helpful to readers, is not helpful to judging policy, but would be very harmful to national security. An example of that is we've written stories about places west of Washington where officials of the government are every day [working as a] shadow government in case Washington is shut down or destroyed by an attack of any kind. We've written about that, but we don't give the location of it; we don't say which officials are there, because what's important for people to know is that this place exists, and they can decide what they want to think about it. ...

In this case, we published much of what she reported, and we left out some facts that we were persuaded probably would be unnecessarily injurious to national security, mainly the names of certain countries. ...

There came a time when very senior officials in the administration asked to talk to me, along with Dana and her editors about their questions about whether or not some of the things she knows would, in their mind, harm national security if we published them. ...

Who called you?

I can't tell you that, because I agreed to ground rules in which they would not be named. They're senior officials of the government, very senior officials of the government. ...

And we agreed to do this. And people may wonder why I would agree to ground rules like that. Because, A, we want to get the story right, and if we have to accept those ground rules to be sure we're right, we want to do that; and B, because we want to not maliciously harm national security, and if somebody's got a serious issue to raise about that, I want to hear it on whatever ground rules they want to present it to me. ...

James Goodale

First Amendment attorney

James Goodale

... There's another situation that [CIA Director Porter Goss is] concerned about. Dana Priest of The Washington Post published that the government of the United States has a relationship with other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, and they maintain secret detention facilities where we keep what we call high-value detainees and that that revelation apparently damages our relationship with other countries.

And Dana Priest should have published that. That is a classic whistleblower case. ... It would seem to me that the CIA has done something that's beyond its charter, is totally illegal, and that the public is much better off knowing that that's happened. It makes no sense whatsoever to take Dana Priest and put her before the grand jury and effectively subject her to a jail sentence for publishing information that protects us all.

But they are conducting a leak investigation. ... As we understand it, people are lawyering up inside the government -- you know, officials who had knowledge of these programs -- and they're interrogating them. ...

Let's get a couple things clear now, because we've been spending a lot of time talking about the government and the press and the lack of a relationship between the two. I think the government should investigate those leaks [about secret CIA prisons], because the government ought to know what its employees are [doing]. If they're leaking, that's against governmental policy. The government has every right to investigate and punish by loss of employment those people who leak, because when you go to work for the government, that's part of your deal.

John Hinderaker

Blogger, Power Line

John Hinderaker

What was your reaction to The Washington Post's story about secret CIA prisons in Europe?

When you're dealing in matters of security, matters of intelligence, matters that are necessarily covert, it is very important to be able to keep a secret. And if other governments around the world don't have confidence that our government can keep a secret, they are not going to be willing to deal with us in many areas that could be very important to the war against terror, for fear that those dealings are going to come out. For that reason, The Washington Post story did do a lot of damage.

John McLaughlin

Former deputy director, CIA

John McLaughlin

And the detention system that the CIA was using to hold high-value detainees, revealing that did damage as well?

I think in the long run it will be seen to have done damage.


There are two ways that these revelations do damage: First, they give terrorists an insight into what we're doing to take them down; and second, in the case of the revelation of the detention program, it tells other countries that even though you've put yourself on the line, even though you have trusted the United States to keep secrets, those secrets can't be kept. ...

This is an ongoing problem the CIA has complained about for decades, that this kind of reporting damages its ability to get cooperation overseas.

Right. Part of the problem here is ... that I don't know that the sense of threat is as deeply and fully shared in the United States as it is within the counterterrorism community itself. And I understand that, because not everyone is sitting there every day reading all of this material. ...

Much of this work is prosaic. Much of it is not the stuff of CIA movies. You hear about the high-profile events: the capture of a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the capture of a Ramzi bin al-Shibh. But you don't hear about, and most people aren't interested in, the less dramatic things that take place: the arrests of couriers, computer people, terrorist operatives who aren't doing front-line work but who are doing some small thing that contributes to the integrity of a terrorist network. ... It's that kind of work that ultimately disrupts and keeps this movement off balance. ...

So anything that limits U.S. secrecy, agility, capacity to respond, capacity to penetrate ultimately rewards this movement. We will continue to have success, but it will be harder as a result of the leaks that we've seen. That's my personal conviction. ...

Dana Priest

Reporter, The Washington Post

Dana Priest

I'm always trying to give even the most controversial stories the fullest context, which means their context: Why did they choose to do something? Why did they set this up the way that it is? Why are they acting in a particular way? ...

What's your motive?

What's your motive? How did it come to be? What were the questions in your mind that might not have been there in the beginning, but evolved over time? Certainly in the secret prison stories that was an element, where everybody right after 9/11 was panicked, and then they started getting these people in their hands, and they really wanted to control their surroundings so that they could get intelligence that would give them information about the next pending attack that everybody thought was coming.

The second wave.

The second wave. So it's understandable why they push the limits of the international law, their own practice, some people would say morality. It's understandable why they did that. The question became, why did it stay that way five years later? ...

We raised this question with the White House: How are we going to maintain this secret for so long? And is the CIA going to be left holding the bag when it's discovered? So people who were very loyal to the agency had these doubts. ...

At the same time, we in the media were starting to find things like the techniques, one or two small prisons, not being able to see the whole system. Also the airplanes.

You mean those mysterious airplanes which happened to show up in public record flight-pattern research.

Yeah. We unearthed, basically, most of their system of proprietary front companies in our own public database work. We even showed it to them before we wrote the story. We did flow charts of who's who and mailbox numbers and all these hundreds of names that didn't exist, and we gave it all to them and said, "OK, what would you like to say about this, because we're going to say X."

You would think that at that point they would realize ... that it's hard to maintain certain secrets in this day and age. ... Private concerns like The Washington Post can find out a lot, so you'd think that they would have at least then started making different arrangements for the secret prisons, but they didn't. ...

The first one that I found was in the Bagram Air Base [in Afghanistan]. It was surrounded by triple layers of concertina wire, and it was the CIA's holding facility. So now I as a reporter ... understand that the CIA's there; they've got the high-value targets. No one else is touching them; they're off limits, and they're using techniques that are different and not anything I would have thought the military could use, given my experience in the military. So how could you not say, "Well, is that unique?," or, "What does the system look like?" ... The questions came up pretty quickly; the answers took a lot more time to find.

And what you found was a worldwide system.

I found a worldwide system of detention that has several different layers and components to it, but also the logistics mechanism to bring people around. ... In fact, most of my work is on the relationships that were built up between the CIA and their foreign counterparts overseas to work together to try to find suspected terrorists and then take them off the street -- either keep them in local jails or bring them to the flak sites or elsewhere.

There are probably two dozen of them now funded by the United States, funded by the CIA. Intel officers from the United States sit side by side with foreign counterparts to bare the worldwide connections that the CIA has, that are really unrivaled, ... to figure out who's who and who did they want to target. ...

The whole reason for having the detention sites was so that the CIA could interrogate the people in them. And nobody else, not the host nation, nobody --

Not the Pentagon?

Not the Pentagon, not the FBI. Nobody. Just the CIA. Their little prison system.

We've interviewed [Washington Post Executive Editor] Len Downie. Didn't, at a certain point, the administration know what you were doing on these detention facilities?

Right. I told them. ...

You called them up?

I called them up. ... Whenever there's something that the reporters obviously see as a potentially sensitive piece of information, I will tell them what it is before I publish it and ask for a comment, but also give them a chance, if they want to or if they feel that it's necessary to say, that piece of information would really be damaging to an ongoing operation, people's lives, things like that.

The most clear-cut examples are military operations that haven't occurred yet or that are ongoing, where there are lives at stake. That's a no-brainer; we don't put that in the paper. The names of countries that host black sites, that's a judgment call, based on that we don't have the full range of information, ... so we have to rely on the government's word. ... Then it is really a judgment call with partial information.

Did you all go in together to the White House and sit down and lay out, "Here's our story, and tell us --"?

Well, this is the part I can talk about, which is that I called up the [CIA]; I told them what we had. ... Some conversations are off the record, so I don't really want to go into that area. ... But we know some other things that happened after that. In this case, eventually the administration, as we wrote in the story, asked us not to publish the names of the countries, and they cited at least two reasons, both of which we put in the paper. ... One was that those particular countries might be subject to terrorist retaliation, and the second is those particular countries might decide to stop their cooperation on other productive counterterrorism cooperation. ...

We kind of cut in half. We didn't name the countries, but we've named the region, and most important to me is that we've said "Eastern European democracies," because the existence of the prisons and the places that they're in, are illegal in the places where they are. And it just so happens those countries used to be under the thumb of the Soviet Union and their pseudo, fake legal system. Now they are all trying to live under the rule of law, except they have made an exception ... when we ask them not to. ...

And the rest of the network ... was in Thailand or Jordan or Egypt or other countries.

Well, the black sites we've only reported as Afghanistan and Thailand and one that existed for a while on Guantanamo. The Jordan and Egypt places -- I have never thought of those in Morocco as black sites, because those are host-nation facilities where my understanding is the CIA has access to people. But the main interrogations are carried out by local interrogators.

It wasn't just detention in these democracies in Eastern Europe; it was also interrogations.

It's the whole reason for having the detentions in the black sites, was so that the CIA could interrogate the people in them, and nobody else -- not the host nation, nobody--

Not the Pentagon, not the FBI?

Nobody, just the CIA. Their little prison system.

... Europeans have investigated. They say these sites aren't there.

No, that's not what they say. You have to go back and read the story. The headline said, "found no evidence of." They have not closed those. Those are ongoing. ... Today in the paper they say they recorded 1,000 CIA flights, different parts of the continent. ... But I will be hugely surprised if they are able to find people who know about the sites and are willing to talk to them. That's not going to happen. They have no subpoena power.

Is the site still there? ...

Well, my understanding is they're not there anymore, but that wouldn't matter to the European Parliament. They want to know because, as I said, they are illegal under the laws of the countries that they were in. They want to know how a government agreed to that. But they're not going to find out unless they get really lucky.

Or confidential sources.

Unless they get confidential sources, right. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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