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Trading Black Sites for NATO Membership: Eastern Europe’s Role in the US Torture Program

For Lithuania and Romania, in particular, membership in NATO was the trade-off for allowing CIA black sites on their soil. (Image: electron; Edited: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout )

At the beginning of his first term, President Obama told the public to “look forward, as opposed to looking backwards,” on the subject of the CIA torture program. However, many refused to take heed – and they are still pushing for answers. In October, human rights lawyers and activists testified at the European Parliament, arguing that the European Union has not done enough to investigate Europe’s role in the CIA detention, rendition and torture program.

After the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA torture program in 2014 – declassifying more than 500 pages of a 6,000-page document, meaning that the majority is still classified – the European Parliament issued a resolution on it last February that welcomed the Senate report, condemned the CIA’s torture program and called on the US and European Union member states to investigate the abuses and prosecute the perpetrators. However, in terms of real accountability, little has been done.

“If EU actors had refused to get involved, as happened in some member states, then perhaps these egregious human rights abuses would not have happened,” Elspeth Guild of the Center for European Policy Studies told members of the European Parliament. Guild blamed “state secret doctrines” and a lack of independence for blocking an “effective investigation” into the issue.

Eva Joly, a Member of the European Parliament for France and member of France’s Green Party, went on a mission to Romania to investigate claims of the CIA’s illegal detention of prisoners in the country. She said at the hearing, “Nobody cooperated with me. I met with people who denied that anything happened in Romania – even persons from the civil society, or investigative journalists. I am disturbed by the fact that the people I met would not even analyze the evidence accumulate during 10 years.”

Natacha Kazatchkine, a senior policy analyst on fundamental rights, justice and home affairs at the Open Society Foundations attended the European Parliament hearing on the CIA torture program. Like many of those who testified, she feels that Europe has not done enough in terms of transparency and accountability regarding the CIA torture program and Europe’s role in it. She also criticized the lack of accountability in the US regarding the CIA’s global torture program and the prison at Guantánamo Bay, telling Truthout, “The violations are ongoing – the ill-treatment, the injustice – and nothing has been solved.”

Comparing Europe and the US, Kazatchkine told Truthout, “Definitely, we can say that there’s more of a record of accountability in Europe, looking at the court cases, looking at even however imperfect the inquiries have been made in a number of member states. And so Europe can say that it has done some things to address these issues. But the analysis is that no state has completed a full inquiry into this.”

She said that European Union member states often say that they need information from the US about the torture program, or that CIA torture is a US problem to solve. However, Kazatchkine argued that Europe has the capacity and legal foundation to – and should – do much more.

Torture and Extraordinary Rendition in Black Sites

From 2002 to 2008, the CIA detained 119 people in secret prisons known as “black sites” around the world, including Afghanistan, Thailand, Guantánamo Bay and the island of Diego Garcia. Based on the Senate report and previous reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross and CIA Inspector General, forms of torture and other abuses at CIA black sites include: waterboarding, shackling, stress positions, wall slamming, beatings, slapping, prolonged and forced nudity, sleep deprivation, food deprivation and restriction, blaring loud music, exposure to extreme cold and hot temperatures, anal rape and other forms of sexual abuse, threats to kill and rape loved ones, cramped confinement, use of insects and mock executions. Torture violates international law, particularly the Convention Against Torture – a treaty to which the US is a party.

After media and other reports of the CIA torture program were coming to light, in February 2007 the European Parliament issued a non-binding resolution condemning extraordinary rendition and illegal detention of prisoners in Europe by the CIA. It followed up with similar resolutions in September 2012 and October 2013. According to the 2007 resolution, “At least 1,245 flights operated by the CIA flew into European airspace or stopped over at European airports between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005,” along with “an unspecified number of military flights for the same purpose.”

A 2013 study by the Open Society Justice Initiative found that 54 countries – including 21 European countries – participated in the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. Support for the program took numerous forms, such as helping the US kidnap individuals, hosting black sites or permitting CIA aircraft to use their airspace for landing, take-off and refueling.

Like torture, extraordinary rendition – a government-sponsored extrajudicial transfer or abduction of someone from one country to another for interrogation or torture – is illegal under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Enforced Disappearances, as well as US law.

Black Sites for NATO Membership?

After 9/11, Poland, Romania and Lithuania forged close alliances with the US in its war on terror. This was at a time when Lithuania and Romania were not members of NATO but aspired to join. Poland, on the other hand, already was a NATO member, having joined the alliance in 1999. Moreover, Lithuania, Poland and Romania are former Soviet Union satellites that, at the time, were economically vulnerable and transitioning out of the Soviet era. Thus, forming a close alliance with the United States, particularly during the war on terror, was beneficial to those countries.

For Lithuania and Romania, in particular, membership in NATO was the trade-off for allowing CIA black sites on their soil. A second report by Council of Europe special investigator Dick Marty in 2007 details how Romania gave the US and CIA carte blanche to carry out war on terror operations on Romanian soil. In response to 9/11, then-President Ion Iliescu publicly announced Romania’s support for the United States. According to Marty’s report, “In that statement, President Iliescu signaled Romania’s intention ‘to act as a de facto member of the NATO alliance,’ setting a clear tone at a time when fellow former Eastern-bloc countries were likewise scrambling to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States.” The Romanian Parliament approved Iliescu’s position and allowed US forces and coalition partners to set up bases in and fly over Romania, including aircraft flown by or on behalf of the CIA. Even though Romania was not yet a member of NATO, the Romanian Parliament’s move “effectively mandated the President … to sign NATO-type agreements and bilateral operational orders with the United States.”

For example, the October 2001 Agreement between Romania and the United States of America regarding the Status of US Forces in Romania – or “SOFA Supplemental” – granted permission to the US military and paramilitary forces to move around and operate freely on Romanian soil. It not only applied to members of the US armed services but also civilian airlines, contractors and anyone else working on behalf of the US military. Marty argued that “The breadth of the designation used here represented the perfect opening for the CIA to conduct its clandestine operations in the country.” He concluded that under the 2001 agreement and “additional classified annexes” US military and paramilitary personnel “have in practice operated on Romanian territory with complete freedom from scrutiny or interference by their national counterparts ever since.” US government aircraft and vehicles were free from inspection, US government and civilian contractor aircraft could land, takeoff from, refuel and over-fly in Romania, and US forces were free to do construction on Romanian soil. Added up, Romania was a suitable environment for the CIA to operate its torture chambers with impunity.

When the United States government approached Romania to establish a black site in Romanian territory, it offered “formidable US support for Romania’s full accession into the NATO Alliance as the ‘biggest prize’ in exchange,” according to Marty’s report.

Lithuania also agreed to cooperate with the CIA in order to foster better relations with the United States and secure a position in NATO. As ABC News reported, “Lithuania agreed to allow the CIA prison after President George W. Bush visited the country in 2002 and pledged support for Lithuania’s efforts to join NATO.” Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar and current ABC News consultant told ABC, “The new members of NATO were so grateful for the US role in getting them into that organization that they would do anything the US asked for during that period.” He added, “They were eager to please and eager to be cooperative on security and on intelligence matters.”

Lithuania and Romania finally joined NATO in 2004.

CIA Black Sites in Lithuania and Romania

Based on what is currently known, the CIA operated black sites in three European countries (among others around the world): Poland, Romania and Lithuania. The CIA had code names for its secret prisons: In the Senate report, the black site in Poland was codenamed “Blue” or “Quartz,” the prison in Lithuania was called “Violet,” and the one in Romania was referred to as “Black.” Lithuania, Poland and Romania are the European countries that held CIA black sites, while the 18 other countries supported the rendition and torture program in other ways.

After the CIA emptied its black site in Poland in September 2003, the agency opened another secret prison in Romania. In December 2011, the Associated Press investigated the black site in Romania, reporting that the CIA used a government building in Bucharest, Romania as a makeshift secret prison to detain, interrogate and torture high-value detainees, such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Faraj al-Libi. The building used was for the National Registry Office for Classified Information (ORNISS), which stores classified information for NATO and the European Union. It was hidden in place, near a major boulevard, a residential area and close to train tracks.

According to the AP, after “flying into Bucharest, the detainees were brought to the site in vans. CIA operatives then drove down a side road and entered the compound through a rear gate that led to the actual prison.” The detainees were unloaded from the vans and put in the building’s basement, which one senior ORNISS told the AP was “one of the most secure rooms in all of Romania.” The basement had “six prefabricated cells” that each had an arrow and clock pointing to Mecca. “The cells were on springs, keeping them slightly off balance and causing disorientation among some detainees,” reported the AP. Several former officials told the AP that “[d]uring the first month of their detention, the detainees endured sleep deprivation and were doused with water, slapped or forced to stand in painful positions.” However, they said waterboarding was not performed. After initial interrogations, detainees were treated more humanely and given “regular dental and medical checkups” and halal food.

The fact that the black site was in a government building “provided excellent cover.” According to the AP, “The prison didn’t need heavy security because area residents knew [the building] was owned by the government. People wouldn’t be inclined to snoop in post-communist Romania, with its extensive security apparatus known for spying on the country’s own citizens.”

The Bucharest black site was closed in the first half of 2006. In addition to Bucharest, the CIA also allegedly had a black site at the Mikhail Kogalniceau airport/base in southeast Romania next to the Black Sea, where 23 Iraqis and Afghans were interrogated, according to a secret Egyptian fax published in a 2006 report by Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick.

For years, the Romanian government denied that the CIA had run secret torture prisons on its soil. But shortly after the Senate report was released in December 2014, former head of Romania intelligence Ioan Talpes confirmed that the CIA had “at least” one secret prison in the country. Talpes headed Romania’s foreign intelligence service, SIE, from 1992 to 1997 and “for four years until 2004, was head of the president’s office with responsibility for national security,” according to the Guardian. He told Germany’s Spiegel Online that the CIA had one, maybe two, black sites in Romania, where “it is probable that people were imprisoned, and treated in an inhumane manner” between 2003 and 2006. The CIA also had a transit camp where detainees were kept before they sent to other locations.

Since 2003, Talpes had several discussions with US military officials about closer cooperation between the United States and Romania. A key tenet of those discussions was letting the CIA execute its own activities. He denied knowing where the CIA black sites were or that torture occurred because Romania had “explicitly taken no interest in knowing what the CIA did there.” Talpes said, “It was the Americans’ business what they did in these places.”

Last April, former Romanian president Ion Iliescu – president from 2000 to 2004 – admitted approving the CIA’s request for a black site in Romania. He approved the CIA’s request in 2002-2003 but denied knowledge of what the agency did in the black site. According to the Associated Press, Iliescu “did not mention the location of the site, its size or whether there was more than one.” He also denied approving the CIA’s request in exchange for US support for Romania joining NATO.

The Lithuanian black site was at an exclusive horse-riding academy outside Vilnius, Lithuania and held at least half a dozen prisoners. According to ABC News, “Where affluent Lithuanians once rode show horses and sipped coffee at a café, the CIA installed a concrete structure where it could use harsh tactics to interrogate up to eight suspected al-Qaeda terrorists at a time.” The CIA – through a front company Elite, LLC – purchased the property and built the black site in 2004. It operated the secret prison until late 2005. Lithuanian intelligence also made a guest house in downtown Vilnius available for CIA in 2002, but there is little to no evidence that it was used, according to ABC News.

Currently, there are several pending legal cases against Lithuania filed by lawyers representing detainees who were detained at the black site. Lawyers for Mustafa al-Hawsawi filed a case with Lithuanian prosecutors in Lithuanian courts demanding transparency on what happened at the site. Meanwhile, attorneys for Abu Zubaydah – the first prisoner captured in the CIA torture program – filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights against the Lithuanian government for his illegal transfer and possible detention in the country.

The use of the “state secrets” card impedes transparency and accountability for the abuses of the CIA torture program in Europe, just as it does in the United States. However, unlike the US, in Europe there is greater effort – albeit small – to hold governments accountable for their role in supporting the torture program. These developments in Europe are worth noting. If they gain enough traction, they could even inspire steps toward accountability in the United States.