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The CIA says all of the detainees were brought to the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (file photo) (AFP)
WASHINGTON, June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a new report titled "Off The Record," six human rights groups say they can't account for 39 people who were once held in secret prisons run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which they say raises questions about how closely the United States is complying with international law.
For years, the groups and press reports have accused the United States of keeping suspected terrorists in prisons around the world. It wasn't until 18 months ago that U.S. President George W. Bush finally acknowledged their existence -- but only after the practice had ended.
Bush was unapologetic when he finally acknowledged the existence of the foreign-custody program.
Without offering details, the president said the treatment of the inmates was "rough," but never met the definition of torture. And he declared that the interrogation program had been a resounding success.
"Information from terrorists in CIA custody has played a role in the capture or questioning of nearly every senior Al-Qaeda member or associate detained by the U.S. and its allies since this program began," Bush said in September 2006.
"By providing everything from initial leads to photo identifications to precise locations of where terrorists were hiding, this program has helped us to take potential mass murderers off the streets before they were able to kill," he added.
At the time, Bush said the last remaining 14 prisoners in CIA custody overseas were being transferred to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to face trial before U.S. military courts.
CIA 'Complies With U.S. Law'
Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, echoes Bush's assertion that holding the suspects in CIA custody yielded valuable intelligence, and he dismissed the assertions of the six human rights groups.
"There's a lot of myth outside government when it comes to the CIA and the fight against terror," Mansfield tells RFE/RL. "The plain truth is that we act in strict accord with American law, and that our counterterror initiatives, which are subject to careful review and oversight, have been very effective in disrupting plots and saving lives."
Mansfield would say nothing more, beyond that statement. But a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the report by the human rights group is "absolutely wrong" and contains many inaccuracies.
The intelligence official, however, wouldn't characterize the alleged inaccuracies.
U.S. Responsibility To Reveal Prisoners' Fates
On the other side of the debate, Joanne Mariner, the director of the office of terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch, one of the groups that authored the findings, scoffs at the CIA's response to the report.
Mariner tells RFE/RL that for years, groups like hers, as well as the independent news media, reported on the existence of the secret prisons, only to be told by the Bush administration that their reports were wrong.
Finally, she points out, Bush admitted they were right.
Mariner says it's bad enough that the United States secretly held suspects for several years. Now that the Bush administration has acknowledged what it did, she says, the least it should do is account for every single prisoner.
"Under international law, when a government puts someone in detention, it is responsible to reveal the fate and whereabouts of those people," Mariner says. "So we've basically made a prima facie case for the U.S. government. The U.S. government must now either deny that it's held these people, or be making it public that they were in CIA detention."
Report Confirmed Sources
Besides Human Rights Watch, "Off The Record" was produced by Amnesty International, Reprieve, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Cageprisoners, and the International Human Rights Clinic of New York University.
Mariner says investigators from each of the six groups were able to establish that at least 39 people who are now unaccounted and missing had once been in CIA custody.
She says the information was confirmed three ways: first, the U.S. government has named and acknowledged some of the suspects it held in secret overseas prisons; second, witnesses or other evidence that she calls "very, very strong" supported the fact that certain other individuals were in CIA detention; and third, the investigators relied on independent news reports.
Mariner acknowledged that the evidence in every prisoner's case isn't as solid as the researchers would like. But she stressed that the groups' report could challenge Washington -- and others -- to set the record straight.
"I don't know if I expect that today the [U.S.] government's going to deny holding a certain number of people or admit holding a certain number of people. But I do think the more publicity goes to this problem, the more it's likely that information is going to be shaken loose, and perhaps countries in which the people will be held will give them access to counsel or will release some of them," Mariner says. "Hopefully this is a way to put pressure on the U.S. and other governments."
One day, Mariner says, she may again hear the president of the United States confirming something that she's already known for a long time.