President Obama’s executive order closing CIA “black sites” contains a little-noticed exception that allows the spy agency to continue to operate temporary detention facilities abroad.
The provision illustrates that the president’s order to shutter foreign-based prisons, known as black sites, is not airtight and that the Central Intelligence Agency still has options if it wants to hold terrorist suspects for several days at a time.
Current and former U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition that they aren’t identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said such temporary facilities around the world will remain open, giving the administration the opportunity to seize and hold assumed terrorists.
The detentions would be temporary. Suspects either would be brought later to the United States for trial or sent to other countries where they are wanted and can face trial.
The exception is evidence that the new administration, while announcing an end to many elements of the Bush “war on terror,” is leaving itself wiggle room to continue some of its predecessor’s practices regarding terrorist suspects.
According to the executive order, “The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in section 4(a) of this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.”
Analysts inside and outside government say this refers to so-called safe houses, which are buildings where operatives can go to protect themselves from pursuers or can hide people they have taken into custody.
“This executive order does not close down all operations. There are still facilities on a temporary basis, often called safe houses, for holding someone for a matter of days,” an administration official said.
Ken Gude, the associate director of international rights and responsibilities at the Center for American Progress, said the temporary facilities operated by the CIA should not be confused with the Bush administration’s black sites.
“My understanding is that these types of temporary facilities can be in no way described as a prison,” Mr. Gude said. “They are temporary holding facilities that the CIA has used in the past for decades, … often parts of exchange agreements with other foreign intelligence agencies.”
“For example, we may have an agreement with the Pakistanis, where we agree to pick someone up and we need a place to hold them temporarily while we decide what is the next appropriate course of action,” he said. “This is not like the so-called black site prisons that we heard about as part of the extraordinary rendition program.”
Michael Kraft, a former senior adviser at the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department, said the temporary facilities could be used for any number of reasons.
“A scenario might be, someone is picked up in country X, and maybe for logistics reasons, we hold him somewhere else, while a plane with larger fuel tanks is prepared to take him to his final destination,” said Mr. Kraft, who retired in 2004.
Duane Clarridge, who founded the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, said the temporary facilities may be used for interrogations.