At least three dozen detainees who were held in the CIA's secret prisons overseas appear to be missing - and efforts by human rights organizations to track their whereabouts have been unsuccessful.
The story of these "ghost prisoners" was comprehensively documented last week by Pro Publica, an online investigative journalism group for which all of us should be grateful.
In September 2007, Michael V. Hayden, then director of the CIA, said, "fewer than 100 people had been detained at CIA's facilities." One memo released last week confirmed that the CIA had custody of at least 94 people as of May 2005 and "employed enhanced techniques to varying degrees in the interrogations of 28 of these."
Former President George W. Bush publicly acknowledged the CIA program in September 2006, and transferred 14 prisoners from the secret jails to
Guantanamo. Many other prisoners, who had "little or no additional intelligence value," Bush said, "have been returned to their home countries for prosecution or detention by their governments."
But Bush did not reveal their identities or whereabouts -- information that would have allowed the International Committee for the Red Cross to find them -- or the terms under which the prisoners were handed over to foreign jailers.
The U.S. government has never released information describing the threat any of them posed. Some of the prisoners have since been released by third countries holding them, but it is still unclear what has happened to dozens of others, and no foreign governments have acknowledged holding them.
Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents Majid Khan, a former ghost detainee at Guantánamo, told us, "The Obama administration must change course from its 'forward-looking' path because it leaves too many critical questions unanswered, including those about the fate of ghost prisoners held by the United States. The United States is strong enough to examine the CIA and other agencies' activities, to punish individuals who violated our laws, and to ensure that our nation does not slip to the dark side again."
Pro Publica reported that former officials in the Bush administration said that the CIA spent weeks during the summer of 2006 -- shortly before Bush acknowledged the CIA prisons and suspended the program -- transferring prisoners to Pakistani, Egyptian and Jordanian custody.
The organization said the population inside the program had been shrinking since the existence of the prisons was detailed in a Washington Post article in November 2005. Renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Libya in May 2006 made it possible for the CIA to turn over Libyan prisoners to Moammar Gadhafi's control.
Joanne Mariner, director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program at Human Rights Watch, said, "If these men are now rotting in some Egyptian dungeon, the administration can't pretend that it's closed the door on the CIA program."
"Making the Justice Department memos on the CIA's secret prison program public was an important first step, but the Obama administration needs to reveal the fate and whereabouts of every person who was held in CIA custody," she said.
The Red Cross has had access to and documented the experiences of only the 14 so-called "high value detainees" who were publicly moved out of the CIA program and into the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
In June 2007, human rights groups released the names of three dozen people whose fates remained unknown.
"Until the U.S. government clarifies the fate and whereabouts of these
individuals, these people are still disappeared, and disappearance is one of the most grave international human rights violations," said Margaret Satterthwaite, a law professor at New York University. "We clearly don't know the story of everyone who has been through the program. We need to find out where they are and what happened."
In a related development, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has asked the Obama administration to make public records pertaining to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records pertaining to the number of people currently detained at Bagram and their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention. The ACLU is also seeking records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as "enemy combatants."
"The U.S. government's detention of hundreds of prisoners at Bagram has been shrouded in complete secrecy. Bagram houses far more prisoners than Guantánamo, in reportedly worse conditions and with an even less meaningful process for challenging their detention, yet very little information about the Bagram facility or the prisoners held there has been made public," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.
She told us, "Without transparency, we can't be sure that we're doing the right thing - or even holding the right people - at Bagram."
Recent news reports suggest that the U.S. government is detaining more than 600 individuals at Bagram, including not only Afghan citizens captured in Afghanistan but also an unknown number of foreign nationals captured thousands of miles from Afghanistan and brought to Bagram.