The Magazine

Stalking the CIA

Justice lawyers at daggers drawn with the ­intelligence community.

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By DEBRA BURLINGAME and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Although the Europeans listed Daskal’s colleague, John Sifton, as a “counterterrorism researcher,” he was really researching the CIA—not the terrorists. In The Guantánamo Lawyers, a collection of short, sentimental memoirs written by dozens of lawyers, who sanitized their clients’ histories and glorified their work on behalf of war on terror detainees, Sifton offered an intriguing account of how Human Rights Watch assisted in uncovering details of the CIA’s operations. 

“Throughout the years after 2001, journalists, human rights investigators, and lawyers managed to obtain a surprising amount of information about U.S. detention and interrogation operations,” Sifton wrote. He elaborated (emphasis added): 

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the [New York] Times found and interviewed former CIA detainees. FOIA litigation by the Associated Press, the ACLU, and the Center for Constitutional Rights produced information about former CIA detainees at Guantánamo—lower-level prisoners who had been kept short-term in CIA detention. Every piece of the story seemed to come from a different source. .  .  .

   Lawyers and human rights groups worked together, sharing “intelligence” to uncover what intelligence agencies were doing with detainees. When I was working at Human Rights Watch, I managed to piece together a good deal of information about the CIA’s detention facilities in Afghanistan by collecting accounts from former CIA detainees at Guantánamo, mostly from notes provided by habeas attorneys. I called and met with numerous Guantánamo attorneys to inquire whether their clients had been in CIA custody. In several instances, attorneys I reached were not aware that their clients had been in CIA custody until I explained that their clients’ own accounts matched those of other CIA detainees. In one notable example, I spoke with one of the editors of this book, Mark Denbeaux, after I came to suspect his client had been in a secret site in Afghanistan—the detainee had described one of his earlier places of detention in ways that closely matched other detainees’ descriptions of a CIA site in Afghanistan. The next time Mark went to Guantánamo, he confirmed this previously secret fact with the detainee. 

Human Rights Watch published Sifton’s investigation of the CIA’s detention facilities in Afghanistan in a February 2007 report entitled “Ghost Prisoner.” The report draws on graphic descriptions offered by former detainees. That same report was “reviewed and edited” by Jennifer Daskal. 

What’s particularly striking about Sifton’s description is the role played by the Gitmo habeas attorneys. These lawyers were supposed to be helping their clients file habeas petitions with federal courts. Instead, they went far beyond that legal representation, working to expose the CIA’s activities during a time of war. This involved violations of a 2004 protective order that prohibits detainee attorneys from discussing military operations, arrests, intelligence, or current events with their clients. Nor were they allowed to discuss information about other detainees who are not their own clients.

The cabal described by Sifton worked to uncover not only the location of the CIA’s secret sites, but also the identities of the CIA personnel charged with transporting (via special flights), detaining, and interrogating terrorists. In The Guantánamo Lawyers, Sifton explained how CIA personnel were identified: 

CIA aviation operations were handled by corporate front companies, some of which were hidden by oddly thin veneers. Pilots’ aliases could be cracked by searching FAA records for real persons with characteristics matching those of the aliases. CIA officers passing through Europe also broke their aliases, for instance, by calling their homes from hotels. Police records from Italy and France, revealing these calls, could later be used to confirm officers’ identities. 

It also proved possible for investigators to confirm that personnel were CIA: Public-records searches for CIA officers would typically reveal a set of overseas State Department or U.S. military base postings and post office-box addresses in Northern Virginia. 

Some of the Gitmo lawyers have no problem with exposing the CIA’s secret detention facilities or stalking CIA operatives and then showing their pictures to top al Qaeda terrorists. It is all part of the investigation and potential prosecution of the CIA, which Jennifer Daskal has long advocated. 

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