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“America’s Secret Afghan Prisons”: Investigation Unearths New US Torture Site, Abuse Allegations in Afghanistan

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A new investigation by journalist Anand Gopal reveals harrowing details about US secret prisons in Afghanistan, under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Gopal interviewed Afghans who were detained and abused at several disclosed and undisclosed sites at US and Afghan military bases across the country. He also reveals the existence of another secret prison on Bagram Air Base that even the Red Cross does not have access to. It is dubbed the Black Jail and is reportedly run by US Special Forces. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A major UN report on secret detention policies around the world concludes the practice could reach the threshold of a crime against humanity. An advance unedited version of the report was published last week and will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March. The report examines the vast network of secret prisons connected to the so-called global war on terror.

Well, a new investigation by journalist Anand Gopal reveals some harrowing details about America’s secret prisons in Afghanistan, under both the Bush and Obama administrations. What emerges is a world that goes far beyond the main prison in Bagram and includes disappearances, night raids, hidden detention centers and torture. Gopal interviewed Afghans who were detained and abused at several disclosed and undisclosed sites at US and Afghan military bases across the country. He also reveals the existence of another secret prison on Bagram Air Base that even the Red Cross doesn’t have access to. It’s dubbed the Black Jail and reportedly is run by US Special Forces.

Journalist Anand Gopal has reported from Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. His latest article, “America’s Secret Afghan Prisons,” appears in the February 15th edition of The Nation magazine and is also available at and []. Anand Gopal joins us now from Austin, Texas, before returning to Afghanistan.

Anand, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out your findings.

ANAND GOPAL: Well, there’s a vast complex network of prisons across Afghanistan, mostly situated on US military bases. There’s at least nine of them that we know about. These are small holding centers that people are taken to and interrogated. And then there’s also the main prison at Bagram.

In addition to that, there’s even more secretive prisons, some of which we don’t even know about, some of which we only have glimpses of. One is, as you mentioned, the Black Jail, which is also on Bagram and is run by US Special Forces. There’s also other prisons that are on other bases, for example, Afghan army bases and Afghan police bases.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where you begin your piece, in the eastern Afghan town of Khost? Talk about the young government employee who simply disappeared.

ANAND GOPAL: Well, there was a young government employee there who one day merely simply vanished, and his family members did everything they could over the course of months to try to find out what happened to him. They appealed to government officials. They asked the Taliban. They asked the US military. And nobody had any idea what had happened to him. And months later, they got — received a letter from the Red Cross informing them that their loved one had been taken to Bagram. And he didn’t know why he was taken or how long he was going to be held.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about these night raids where people are picked up and the effect they’re having on the Afghan population.

ANAND GOPAL: Night raids are US military operations, usually done by Special Forces, that happen at night. They occur when US forces enter people’s homes in the middle of the night, often to find suspects or to look for weapons. Very often, they’ll take people away, and sometimes they even end up killing civilians in the process.

And one thing I found going throughout the country and interviewing people is that these night raids, which aren’t really talked about outside of Afghanistan, the night raids are the most unpopular actions of coalition forces, more so than air strikes that kill civilians. They’re seen as a major affront to local culture, to the extent where people are actually scared in many places to actually go to sleep at night, because they don’t know who will burst through the door at night and take away their loved ones.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe the 19th of November, just a few months ago, at 3:15 in the morning, the loud blast that awoke the villagers of a leafy neighborhood outside Ghazni city, a town of ancient provenance in the country’s south. Describe what this team of US soldiers did, whose compound it was, whose house it was.

ANAND GOPAL: Well, this was a house that was belonging to somebody who is a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, so he was somebody associated with the Afghan government. US forces came in the night. They burst through the door. And first they killed two people, two bystanders who were civilians, and then they moved on throughout the compound and sort of tore the whole place apart. I have pictures of the aftermath, which are in the magazine and show the sort of devastation that was wrought that night. Dishes were destroyed. Clothes were strewn about.

They were looking for one person, one family member who was a computer programmer, who had spent time in Kuwait. And they were acting on a tip that this person was associated with al-Qaeda. And they took him and one other person away to a military prison some miles away.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the reaction of the community? I mean, often you have village elders, families going to the Taliban, saying — you know, with their connections to them, saying, you know, “Have you taken this young man? Have you taken this older person? Where is he?” And only, well, months later or weeks later do they get some kind of note, if they do, that the person is being held by the US forces.

ANAND GOPAL: Well, in this case, since the house belonged to somebody who’s associated with the Afghan government, what he did is he pulled all the strings he could. He called Afghan officials, even got the minister involved, to try to find out what happened, because whenever these people are taken in these raids, nobody knows what happens to them. I mean, the family doesn’t have any sense of where they go or if they’ll ever see them again or even if they’re alive or not. So, for some time, they were trying to find out what happened. And we still don’t know where this person is. And it’s assumed that he was taken to Bagram, which is the place where most of the detainees end up, but there hasn’t been any confirmation on that.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote a man saying, “I used to go on TV and argue that people should support this government and the foreigners. But I was wrong. Why should anyone do so? I don’t care if I get fired for saying it, but that’s the truth,” he says.

ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, and this is a sentiment that’s widespread. Again, the very act of breaking into people’s homes and taking people away, and to the point where you’ll never see them again, this is something that’s really inculcated a lot of fear and hatred amongst the local population. And it’s come to the point, especially in the Pashtun areas, where there’s a lot of locals who feel that they need to be protected not only from the Taliban, but also from US military operations.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, you write that of the twenty-four former detainees that you interviewed for this story, seventeen said they were abused. What happened to them?

ANAND GOPAL: Well, the abuse ran the gamut from being slapped and kicked and punched to more extreme cases. One of the more extreme cases, which I detail in the story, is of one person who was essentially waterboarded or made to swallow large amounts of water, and he was hung upside down. He was hung from chains. He was forced to kneel on a metal bar as it rolled across his shin.

There are other cases of people who have been — who have had dogs used against them, so dog bites. There’s been accusations of sleep deprivation, where interrogators will play very loud music throughout the night and keep the lights on, and also accusations of being stripped and being held naked in public areas or held naked outside in very cold weather.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be exact in the quote of this man who was taken, you say they — you quote him saying, “They tied my hands to a pulley and pushed me back and forth as the bar rolled across my shins. I screamed and screamed.” They then pushed him to the ground and forced him to swallow twelve bottles of water. And you quote the man saying, “Two people held my mouth open and they poured water down my throat until my stomach was full and I became unconscious. It was as if someone had inflated me,” he says. After he was roused from his torpor, he vomited the water uncontrollably.

Can you talk about these —-

ANAND GOPAL: That’s right. And the -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

ANAND GOPAL: Sorry. I was going to say that the remarkable thing about this is that he was taken to Bagram and then quietly released three or four months later and given a letter of apology saying that US authorities realized they had the wrong man. And a lot of the people who allege abuse also have these letters from US authorities, basically absolving them.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how this has or has not changed from President Bush to President Obama, Anand?

ANAND GOPAL: Well, some of the worst torture has subsided in the last — not just under President Obama, but in the last three or four years. Some of the worst of it has subsided. But a deeper shift that’s happened is, in the early years of the war — this is from 2001 to 2003 or ’04 — we saw a lot of this sort of thing, this sort of really serious abuse happening in Bagram, in the main prison. Today, Bagram doesn’t really have that sort of abuse, and it’s much — they’ve really cleaned up their act over there.

But some of the abuse has shifted away from Bagram into these small field prisons. There’s nine official field prisons throughout the country on military bases, and they’ve shifted towards these military bases. And the Red Cross doesn’t always have access to all of these sites. And these sites are usually run by Special Operations Forces. So they’re more — they’re out of the public view more than Bagram, so it’s a little harder to know what’s exactly happening in these places.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, we’re also joined by Scott Horton, an attorney and legal affairs contributor to Harper’s Magazine, where he writes the blog ”No Comment.”

Scott, as you listen to these descriptions, from the night raids to the secret prisons, you’ve also written about this. What is the legality here?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, these are — these acts that are described, particularly things like the water cure or the use of stress positions, sleep deprivation, are clearly illegal. Not only that, the Department of Defense has issued a field manual on authorized interrogation techniques, under which these practices, also things like the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners, are clearly forbidden.

And the concern here, I think, goes particularly to the involvement of the Joint Special Operations Command, which is running these detention centers. Now, when President Obama, on January 22nd, issued an executive order shutting down the black sites, the secret prisons, that order was very carefully tailored so that it was only CIA black sites that were closed. So the system of JSOC black sites that exist, as have been —-

AMY GOODMAN: Joint Special Operations.

SCOTT HORTON: Exactly -— as have been described in Afghanistan, but exist in other places, as well. Certainly they also exist in Iraq. And we have suspicions about Guantánamo, for instance.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, you have suspicions?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, the deaths that occurred on June 9, 2006 occurred at a black site, and there’s a big question about who was operating that black site. But it’s very, very clear that JSOC was operating a system.

Also it seems clear, and there’s very strong evidence to suggest, that JSOC itself, or many of its operations, have not been bound to observe the field manual and the rules in the field manual. And the Secretary of Defense gave himself discretion when he issued that field manual to make it inapplicable to specific operations or specific units, as he saw fit.

So I think that’s one of the big questions that’s hovering over Afghanistan right now, as well as the questions of transparency and accountability. If the Red Cross doesn’t get in, if indeed these operations are classified and secret, that means that there’s no reporting and there’s no accountability for what goes on there. That creates an environment where abuses fester.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, you write, “The American troops that operate under NATO command have begun to enforce stricter rules of engagement.” But you say, “A simpler way of dancing around the rules is to call in the U.S. Special Operations Forces — the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and others — which are not under NATO command [and] so are not bound by the stricter rules of engagement.” Can you elaborate on that? And then I want to get Scott’s comment.

ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, there’s — you have Special Operations Forces, and as I said, these are Navy Seals and Green Berets and the like, and they have completely separate rules of engagement. They’re not under the NATO rules of command. So, often you’ll hear about a military raid or a night raid in some area, and I’ll call up the US military representatives, and they’ll often have no idea about the raid at all, because there’s this complete separation between the operations that the SF are doing and the operations done by conventional military forces.

And the Special Operations Forces sort of have a mandate in Afghanistan from their commanders to capture and kill insurgent leaders, and often by using any means, every mean at their disposal. So most of these night raids are done by the Special Operations Forces, and most of these small prisons that are in many of the military bases across the country are run by the Special Operations Forces.

AMY GOODMAN: And you write that the people fear the night raids more than they fear the Taliban.

ANAND GOPAL: Well, certainly, the Taliban, they’re not always loved across the country, but they understand local culture, and they understand if they start breaking into people’s houses and taking people away, then they’ll have rebellions against them. The Americans, the American military doesn’t always understand this in the same level. And so, I’ve been to many villages where they say that the main source of instability in their village is the presence of US military operations, and the biggest fear they have is US soldiers coming into their houses in the middle of the night and taking away their loved ones.

AMY GOODMAN: And with the increase of US soldiers, as they’re increasing tens of thousands of them, is this a concern to people in Afghanistan? What have you seen as a result of this?

ANAND GOPAL: This is certainly a concern, and we’ve seen an increasing number of demonstrations over the last three or four months. We’ve heard a lot of talk in the summertime from General McChrystal about lessening the number of night raids, but it doesn’t look like that’s happened. It seems like at least it’s continued at the same level.

And when you go and talk to Afghans, especially in the rural Pashtun countryside, again and again you hear the same thing, which is that “when US troops come into our area, the violence increases, because there’s more fighting from both sides, and there’s more night raids and more of the sort of things that we’re afraid of, and therefore we don’t want them here.”

AMY GOODMAN: What has, finally, the US military said about the Black Jail at Bagram?

ANAND GOPAL: The military said very little about it. And again, this is because there’s a shroud of secrecy around almost the whole detention process. And it talks more about the other jail on Bagram, the one that’s accessible to the Red Cross. But the Black Jail, which is run by Special Operations Forces, it hasn’t said much about it, and it’s very difficult to get any sort of official comment about the jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Anand Gopal, I want to thank you very much for being with us, reporting from Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. His latest piece is in The Nation magazine and [], called “America’s Secret Afghan Prisons.”

Scott Horton, I’d like to ask you to stay with this. We’re going to go to break, though, first. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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