EXCLUSIVE: Loophole allows terrorist detentions

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“It seems to me that they will take down terrorist suspects, bring them to a safe house, which is acquired on a temporary basis and controlled by the CIA or the military, where they interrogate the suspect over a period of days before making a decision on future disposition.

“We don’t know what that is; it could be a variety of things. It could be turn him over to the country of origin, or for standing trial in a third country, or release,” Mr. Clarridge said.

The practice of moving terrorist suspects abroad, called rendition, began during the Reagan administration and escalated under President Clinton. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration began classifying terrorist suspects as enemy combatants and holding them indefinitely without formal charges or the protections afforded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

The closure of black-site prisons by Mr. Obama was part of a series of orders issued last week that included closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other measures to undo the previous administration’s war on terrorism. The president revoked all executive directives issued by the CIA between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 20, 2009, that have been used to justify harsh interrogation techniques, which critics have called torture. Mr. Obama also revoked Executive Order 13440, which declares al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to be “enemy combatants” and therefore not protected by the Geneva Conventions.

The CIA practiced rendition before Sept. 11, 2001, and in some cases sent suspected terrorists to countries where human rights groups have claimed they were tortured.

The issue of rendition will be one of the policies studied by a Cabinet-level special task force on interrogation and transfer policies.

While the CIA operated special prisons overseas for high-value al Qaeda and Taliban detainees, the agency holds no such detainees in custody today, two U.S. officials said.

The last person in the CIA detention program was Muhammed Rahim, purported to be a driver for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban that governed Afghanistan until being overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion shortly after Sept. 11.

Rahim was transferred to the Guantanamo Bay prison on March 14, 2008.

One of the two officials, when asked about the executive order Tuesday, said: “The wording seems to preserve the ability to capture terrorists. But long-term detention by the CIA is out.”

The loophole for safe houses worries the American Civil Liberties Union, which has pressed for the closing of Guantanamo Bay and the black sites.

“This is a place where what we all understood to be the CIA’s secret prison system with prisons in places like Poland and Thailand is shut down here, and there is no future detention authority to operate those facilities,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU.

“But there is a provision on some kind of short-term detention authority, and our position is that the CIA should have no detention authority,” Mr. Anders said. “If President Obama has taken the CIA out of the prison business, he should also take the CIA out of the short-term jailer business as well.”

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