Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Secret Somali Prison Exposed

By William Fisher

The CIA is involved in rendering suspected terrorists from Kenya to Somalia and interrogating them in a secret prison just outside Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, according to Jeremy Scahill of The Nation magazine.

The operation is part of a growing CIA campaign in Somalia, which includes a counterterrorism training program for Somali intelligence agents and operatives. Scahill says this program is aimed at “building an indigenous strike force capable of snatch operations and targeted ‘combat’ operations against members of Al Shabab, the Islamic militant group with close ties to Al Qaeda.” This is the group that forced international NGOs to leave Somalia and cease providing food and medical aid to thousands of Somalis suffering the worst drought in more than a half century.

In a lengthy article in the August 1-8 edition of the magazine, Scahill reports that” while the US does not control the prison, the CIA controls access to it, pays the monthly salaries of Somali intelligence agents, and questions prisoners directly.”

The prison, he writes, is “buried in the basement of Somalia’s National
Security Agency (NSA) headquarters, where prisoners suspected of being Shabab members or of having links to the group are held. Some of the prisoners have been snatched off the streets of Kenya and rendered by plane to Mogadishu.

“While the underground prison is officially run by the Somali NSA, US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners,” Scahill writes.

The walled, gated and heavily guarded compound is located near Mogadishu’s airport, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. The compound includes eight large metal hangars; the CIA has its own aircraft at the airport.

Scahill says a US official confirmed the existence of both sites. The official is quoted as telling The Nation, “It makes complete sense to have a
strong counterterrorism partnership” with the Somali government.”

He writes, “The CIA presence in Mogadishu is part of Washington’s intensifying counterterrorism focus on Somalia, which includes targeted strikes by US Special Operations forces, drone attacks and expanded surveillance operations. The US agents “are here full time,” Scahill says he was told by a senior Somali intelligence official.

“At times, the official said, “there are as many as thirty of them in Mogadishu,” but he stressed that those working with the Somali NSA do not conduct operations; rather, they advise and train Somali agents.

Scahill quotes “Somali sources” as saying, “The CIA is reluctant to deal directly with Somali political leaders, who are regarded by US officials as corrupt and untrustworthy. Instead, the United States has Somali intelligence agents on its payroll. Somali sources with knowledge of the program described the agents as lining up to receive $200 monthly cash payments from Americans.”

“They support us in a big way financially,” the senior Somali intelligence official is quoted as telling Scahill. “They are the largest [funder] by far.”

Scahill writes: “According to former detainees, the underground prison, which is staffed by Somali guards, consists of a long corridor lined with filthy small cells infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes…The former prisoners described the cells as windowless and the air thick, moist and disgusting. Prisoners, they said, are not allowed outside. Many have developed rashes and scratch themselves incessantly. Some have been detained for a year or more.”

Some of the prisoners, he reports, told him “they were picked up in Nairobi and rendered on small aircraft to Mogadishu, where they were handed over to Somali intelligence agents. Once in custody, according to the senior Somali intelligence official and former prisoners, some detainees are
freely interrogated by US and French agents.”

“Our goal is to please our partners, so we get more [out] of them, like any relationship,” said the Somali intelligence official in describing the policy of allowing foreign agents, including from the CIA, to interrogate prisoners.

The Americans, according to the Somali official, operate unilaterally in the country, while the French agents are embedded within the African Union force known as AMISOM, Scahill reports.

According to Scahill, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve have documented that “Kenyan security and intelligence forces have facilitated scores of renditions for the US and other governments, including eighty-five people rendered to Somalia in 2007 alone.

But according to the senior Somali intelligence official, who works directly
with the US agents, “the CIA-led program in Mogadishu has brought few tangible gains, Scahill writes.

“So far what we have not seen is the results in terms of the capacity of the [Somali] agency,” says the official. Scahill reports that the official conceded that “neither US nor Somali forces have been able to conduct a single successful targeted mission in the Shabab’s areas in the capital.

Now, if Scahill’s information is accurate, we should all be puzzled. Here’s why:

In his first week in office, President Barack Obama banned “coercive interrogations” and ordered the C.I.A. secret prisons closed. The existence of the secret prisons was never revealed by the government; it was exposed in an article in The Washington Post by Dana Priest in 2005.

And, at his confirmation hearing in 2009, then CIA Director nominee Leon Panetta said that the Obama administration would end the practice of “extraordinary rendition” -- sending prisoners to countries for torture or other treatment that violates U.S. values. He contended that such renditions had occurred during the Bush presidency.

More recently, Panetta (who is now Defense Secretary) said the CIA had not detained any terrorism suspects since he took office in February 2009 and added that any suspects captured in the future would be quickly turned over to the American military or to a suspect’s home country.

Well, the prison in Somalia is not run or staffed by the CIA. So, technically, it is in keeping with the letter, if not the spirit, of President Obama’s executive order. Nor is the interrogation of prisoners there by CIA agents, assuming they are not using the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the George W. Bush administration.

And, as for rendition, the CIA – in the unlikely event it has anything at all to say -- would likely maintain that renditions to Somalia were conducted by Kenya.

What we are left with is the US financing a secret prison where prisoners are snatched from other countries, held incommunicado with no due process and no access to their own government, lawyers or family members.

We have to wonder whether this is what President Obama had in mind when he signed his executive orders. What ever happened to transparency?