The Magazine

Inside Our 'Secret' Afghan Prisons

A Navy SEAL and a Harvard-trained lawyer take charge of U.S. detention policy.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By WILLY STERN
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There are five or six such cells in each facility. One site that I visited was empty; the other had a single detainee. This is typical. Detainees are given a mat, blanket, and three meals, at least one of which is hot. On one cell wall is a single piece of white paper with handwritten directions and a simple picture indicating the direction to face to pray towards Mecca. On another wall is part of the Geneva Conventions translated into Dari and Pashto. A prayer mat and bottled water are provided. Detainees are given medical treatment. Lights stay on 24/7--there is no individual lighting for each cell--but that practice is common in any U.S. prison where there is need for frequent safety and security checks. (The one detainee I saw was sleeping soundly on a cushioned mat, under a thick brown blanket, despite the lights being on. A half-drunk bottle of water and his white Kandahari hat were on the floor, next to his shoes.)

Amanula's testimony contrasts with the stories in the Times and Post. Amanula was given a private room at the FDS--while his American captors slept in bunk beds, 20-to-a-canvas tent--and interviewed thoroughly by a trained Army interrogator, working through an Afghan translator. The interrogator hardly looked like a U.S. soldier; he wore jeans, longish hair, and a thick beard. Under questioning in accord with Army Field Manual rules, Amanula provided his captors with a wealth of intelligence about other terrorist cells operating in the area. He gave up the names of specific Taliban members in the region, details of the techniques used by the insurgents, even mullahs and mosques who were working with the Taliban.

Within a few days, Amanula was relocated to a larger detention facility, the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF). Located on Bagram Airfield, the large military base north of Kabul at the base of the Hindu Kush, the BTIF sits inside a large yellow hangar built by the Soviets in the early 1980s. Last week the BTIF was closed, and all detainees transferred to the new $60 million Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP)--also located at Bagram.

So why are the mainstream media, human rights groups, and civil libertarians all bent out of shape about the Field Detention Sites? Attribute it to the secrecy. The locations of the FDSs are secret. This is just plain common sense in a war zone. How else can you maintain operational security? Why tell the bad guys--who, after all, are trying to kill our soldiers--where their friends are being held? Some of these facilities are out in the hinterlands where our forces are stretched thin. Public knowledge of the FDS locations would put both our soldiers and the detainees at risk. But for reporters from the Times and the Post, secrecy means there must be something illegal going on.

But the Defense Department takes the secrecy a little too far, generally not allowing any media access to the facilities or even letting them be discussed on-the-record. This policy breeds conspiracy theories, gives rise to outlandish conjecture, and presents an alluring news hook for every muckraking scribe who is all too willing to publish detainees' uncorroborated tales of abuse.

There's a good chance that this less-than-necessary secretiveness will pass away in 2010. So far in Afghanistan the Field Detention Sites have been under the command of whichever military unit controlled that battle space. But in early January, Joint Task Force 435, a unit stood up last September and focused entirely on detentions and interrogations, will assume control over almost all of the American-run detention facilities in Afghanistan. And General Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy puts a premium on winning Afghan hearts and minds as much as defeating the Taliban on the battlefield.

An enlightened and tough, if frazzled and sleep-deprived group, Task Force 435 is heavy on scholarly attorneys and counterinsurgency gurus. Its mantras are transparency and accountability. During two weeks embedded with 435, I was taken to two "secret" Field Detention Sites, two Afghan prisons--including the infamous Pol-i-Charkhi--and a counternarcotics detention facility. I saw hundreds of detainees--not just in their cells but wandering the halls of the cell blocks and out in the recreation yards. I saw conjugal visit huts (made of hardened mud, but certainly private enough) and visited with a detainee being treated for diabetes in the medical unit.