KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — "Black sites," the secret network of jails that grew up after the Sept. 11 attacks, are gone. But suspected terrorists are still being held under hazy circumstances with uncertain rights in secret, military-run jails across Afghanistan, where they can be interrogated for weeks without charge, according to U.S. officials who revealed details of the top-secret network to The Associated Press.
The Pentagon has previously denied operating secret jails in Afghanistan, although human rights groups and former detainees have described the facilities. U.S. military and other government officials confirmed that the detention centers exist but described them as temporary holding pens whose primary purpose is to gather intelligence.
The Pentagon also has said that detainees only stay in temporary detention sites for 14 days, unless they are extended under extraordinary circumstances. But U.S. officials told the AP that detainees can be held at the temporary jails for up to nine weeks, depending on the value of information they produce. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is classified.
The most secretive of roughly 20 temporary sites is run by the military's elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, at Bagram Air Base. It's responsible for questioning high-value targets, the detainees suspected of top roles in the Taliban, al-Qaida or other militant groups.
The site's location, a short drive from a well-known public detention center, has been alleged for more than a year.
The secrecy under which the U.S. runs that jail and about 20 others is noteworthy because of President Barack Obama's criticism of the old network of secret CIA prisons where interrogators sometimes used the harshest available methods, including the simulated drowning known as waterboarding.
Human rights advocates say the severest of the Bush-era interrogation methods are gone, but the conditions at the new interrogation sites still raise questions. Obama pledged when he took office that the United States would not torture anyone, but former detainees describe harsh treatment that some human rights groups claim borders on inhumane.
More than a dozen former detainees claimed they were menaced and held for weeks at the Joint Special Operations Command site last year, forced to strip naked, then kept in solitary confinement in windowless, often cold cells with lights on 24 hours a day, according to Daphne Eviatar of the group Human Rights First, which interviewed them in Afghanistan.
Eviatar said her monitoring group does not believe the JSOC facility is using the full range of Bush-era interrogation techniques, but she said there's a disturbing pattern of using fear and humiliation to soften up the suspects before interrogation.
Many of those interviewed said "they were forced to strip naked in front of other detainees, which is very humiliating for them," Eviatar said. "The forced nudity seems to be part of a pattern to make detainees feel disempowered."
The detainees also reported that their interrogators told them they could be held indefinitely, the group said.
Special Operations Command spokesman Col. Tim Nye denies the allegations, insisting the detainees are treated in accordance with U.S. detention laws, rewritten since the Bush era to prohibit the harshest interrogation techniques. "All detainees are treated humanely in compliance with all U.S. and international laws, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions," Nye wrote in an e-mail.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan add that the top commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, insisted on opening the Joint Special Operations Command site to inspection by Afghan officials and the International Red Cross last summer. The International Red Cross has not responded to an AP inquiry about whether it had been allowed to visit the site.
Petraeus wanted to force more openness on the JSOC, a secretive organization that runs special missions units within the military to perform highly classified activities, according to a senior official briefed on the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
The official said part of Petraeus' logic was to ensure transparency to international monitoring bodies so the interrogations could continue because they are yielding intelligence that has helped quadruple special operations missions against militant targets.
When suspected insurgents or terrorists are first captured, they are interrogated in the field to determine their status in the insurgent hierarchy and their usefulness in terms of local, tactical military intelligence, officials said.
Detainees then can be held up to 14 days in a temporary facility before being either released or transferred to a public detention facility called Parwan that is jointly run by the United States and Afghanistan. The Parwan jail abuts the sprawling U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul, which also houses the secret "temporary" jail.
Ordinary Taliban foot soldiers often provide useful information about how insurgent networks work, who runs them and who pays the bills, said Vice Adm. Robert Harward, who runs detention operations in Afghanistan.
But if detainees can provide unusually valuable information on the location of a bomb-building factory or are willing to identify the local Taliban commander, their interrogators can ask to keep them longer.
After the first two weeks, the first extension is for three weeks, for reasons including "producing good tactical intel" to "too sick to move," according to a U.S. official familiar with the procedure. The next possible extension is for an additional month, adding up to a total of roughly nine weeks in temporary detention before battlefield interrogators have to appeal to the executive, either the defense secretary or the president himself, for another extension.
The military has never pushed for that for any detainee, according to a former senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
It's unclear how many detainees are being held at the temporary facilities at any one time. Detention spokesperson Capt. Pamela Kunze says the number is classified, but it represents only a small fraction of the total number of detainees.
If evidence against the detainees proves solid, they are transferred to Parwan for eventual prosecution in Afghan courts.
Last year, only 1,300 suspects out of 6,600 arrested across Afghanistan ended up at the Parwan detention facility, according to Harward.
There are currently some 1,900 detainees being held at Parwan, which has a capacity of 2,600. Parwan will gradually be handed over to Afghan control. The status of the temporary facilities likely would be negotiated as part of a future security agreement, transitioning power to the government of Afghanistan.