The existence of a secret, CIA-run prison on
the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean has long been a leaky secret
in the "War on Terror," and yesterday's revelations in Time
– based on disclosures by a "senior American official" (now retired),
who was "a frequent participant in White House Situation Room meetings"
after the 9/11 attacks, and who reported that "a CIA counter-terrorism
official twice said that a high-value prisoner or prisoners were being interrogated
on the island" – will come as no surprise to those who have been studying
the story closely.
The news will, however, be an embarrassment to the U.S. government, which has
persistently denied claims that it operated a secret "War on Terror"
prison on Diego Garcia, and will be a source of even more consternation to the
British government, which is more closely bound than its law-shredding Transatlantic
neighbor to international laws and treaties preventing any kind of involvement
whatsoever in kidnapping, "extraordinary rendition" and the practice
This is not the first time that Time has exposed the existence of a
secret prison on Diego Garcia. In 2003, the magazine broke the story that Hambali,
one of 14 "high-value detainees" transferred to Guantánamo
in September 2006, was being held there, and in the years since confirmation
has also come from other sources. Twice, in 2004 and 2006, Barry McCaffrey,
a retired four-star US general, who is now professor of international security
studies at the West Point military academy, revealed the prison's existence.
In May 2004, he blithely declared on MSNBC's Deborah
Norville Tonight, "We're probably holding around 3,000 people,
you know, Bagram air field, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout
Iraq," and in December 2006 he spoke out again, saying, in an NPR
interview with Robert Siegel, "They're behind bars … we've got them on
Diego Garcia, in Bagram air field, in Guantánamo."
The prison's existence was also confirmed by Dick Marty, a Swiss senator who
produced a detailed report on "extraordinary rendition" for the Council
of Europe in June 2007 (PDF)
and by Manfred Novak, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture, in March this
year. Having spoken to senior CIA officers during his research, Marty told the
European Parliament, "We have received concurring confirmations that United
States agencies have used Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility
of the UK, in the ‘processing' of high-value detainees," and Manfred Novak
explained to the Observer
that "he had received credible evidence from well-placed sources familiar
with the situation on the island that detainees were held on Diego Garcia between
2002 and 2003." The penultimate piece of the jigsaw puzzle came in May,
País broke the story that "ghost prisoner" Mustafa
Setmariam Nasar, whose current whereabouts are unknown, was imprisoned on the
island in 2005, shortly after his capture in Pakistan – although the English-speaking
press failed to notice.
Despite these previous disclosures, yesterday's article, by Adam Zagorin, is
particularly striking because of the high-level nature of the source, and his
admission that "the CIA officer surprised attendees by volunteering the
information, apparently to demonstrate that the agency was doing its best to
obtain valuable intelligence." In addition, the source noted that "the
U.S. may also have kept prisoners on ships within Diego Garcia's territorial
waters, a contention the U.S. has long denied."
Zagorin also spoke to Richard Clarke (at the time the National Security Council's
Special Advisor to President Bush regarding counter-terrorism), who explained,
"In my presence, in the White House, the possibility of using Diego Garcia
for detaining high value targets was discussed." Although Clarke "did
not witness a final resolution of the issue," he added, "Given everything
that we know about the administration's approach to the law on these matters,
I find the report that the U.S. did use the island for detention or interrogation
entirely credible," and he also pointed out that using the island for interrogations
or detentions without British permission "is a violation of UK law, as
well as of the bi-lateral agreement governing the island."
Zagorin's source did not name the prisoners, but it seems clear that the period
he was referring to ("2002 and possibly 2003") was when three particular
"high-value detainees" – Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and
Ramzi bin al-Shibh – are reported to have been held on the island, and it seems
entirely plausible, therefore, that after these three were transferred to another
secret CIA facility in Poland, the prison was used not only to hold Hambali,
but also to hold the two other "high-value detainees" captured with
him – Mohammed bin Lep (aka Lillie) and Mohd Farik bin Amin (aka Zubair). The
addition of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, who, it seems, may have been held into
2006, not only confirms that a secret prison existed, but that it was possibly
in use for four years straight.
These damaging revelations seal Diego Garcia's reputation as a quagmire of
injustice. A British sovereign territory – albeit one that was leased to the
United States nearly 40 years ago, when the islanders were shamefully discarded
by the British government and exiled to face destitution and death by misery
in Mauritius – Diego Garcia has long been a source
of shame to opponents of modern colonial activity. Until now, however, the
only admission that any activities connected with the "War on Terror"
had taken place on the island came in February, when, after years of denials
on the part of the British government, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary,
that requests for information from his U.S. counterparts had revealed that,
in 2002, two rendition flights had refuelled on the island. "In both cases,"
Miliband stated with confidence, "a U.S. plane with a single detainee on
board refuelled at the U.S. facility in Diego Garcia. The detainees did not
leave the plane, and the U.S. Government has assured us that no U.S. detainees
have ever been held on Diego Garcia."
The British government had been provoked to action by critics within the UK,
in particular the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition,
led by the Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, and the legal action charity Reprieve,
which represents 30 prisoners in Guantánamo, but the story appeared to
grind to a halt when Michael Hayden, the CIA's director, stepped forward to
deny that Diego Garcia had ever been used as a "War on Terror" prison.
"That is false," Gen. Hayden said when asked if a secret prison
had existed on Diego Garcia, adding, as the New
York Times put it, that "neither of the two detainees carried aboard
the rendition flights that refuelled at Diego Garcia ‘was ever part of the CIA's
high-value terrorist interrogation program.'" He also explained that one
of the detainees "was ultimately transferred to Guantánamo,"
while the other "was returned to his home country," which was identified
by State Department officials as Morocco. "These were rendition operations,"
he added, "nothing more."
Four weeks ago, however, the story resurfaced once more, as David Miliband
the results of his latest request for information from his U.S. counterparts.
This concerned a list of rendition flights, which, in the opinion of Reprieve
and the All-Party Parliamentary Group, may also have passed through British
territory, but the Foreign Secretary was confident that there was no further
evidence to be mined, stating, "The United States Government confirmed
that, with the exception of two cases related to Diego Garcia in 2002, there
have been no other instances in which U.S. intelligence flights landed in the
United Kingdom, our Overseas Territories, or the Crown Dependencies, with a
detainee on board since 11 September 2001."
Yet again, the assurances of his U.S. colleagues did nothing to assuage the
critics. Reprieve noted that the British government "intentionally failed
to ask the right questions of the U.S., and accepted implausible U.S. assurances
at face value," and added, presciently, "This remains a transatlantic
cover-up of epic proportions. While the British government seems content to
accept whatever nonsense it is fed by its U.S. allies, the sordid truth about
Diego Garcia's central role in the unjust rendition and detention of prisoners
in the so-called ‘War on Terror' cannot be hidden forever."
Just three days after David Miliband's last attempt to draw a line under the
story, the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee published its latest report
on the British Overseas Territories (PDF),
and was scathing about Diego Garcia, declaring that "it is deplorable that
previous U.S. assurances about rendition flights have turned out to be false.
The failure of the United States Administration to tell the truth resulted in
the UK Government inadvertently misleading our Select Committee and the House
of Commons. We intend to examine further the extent of UK supervision of U.S.
activities on Diego Garcia, including all flights and ships serviced from Diego
These new revelations, of course, leave the U.S. administration looking like
bald-faced liars and the British government looking like myopic dupes. Whether
Michael Hayden was also duped is not known, but his strenuous denial, just five
months ago, that a secret prison existed, which was manned by his own employees,
will do nothing for the credibility of the U.S. administration, which likes
to pretend that it does not torture and has nothing to conceal, but is persistently
discovered not only being economical with the truth, but also behaving exactly
as though it has guilty secrets to hide.
Whether this scandal will awaken much indignation in the American public remains
to be seen, but it is hugely damaging to the British government, which is legally
responsible for the activities that take place on its territory, however much
it likes to hide behind "assurances" from its leaseholders that they
have done nothing wrong.
It scarcely seems possible, but Diego Garcia's dark history has suddenly grown
The prisoners held on Diego Garcia
Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn). Saudi, b. 1971. Seized
in Faisalabad, Pakistan in a joint operation by Pakistani forces and the FBI
on 28 March 2002, he is regarded by the administration as a senior al-Qaeda
operative and training camp facilitator, although this has been disputed
by former FBI interrogator Dan Coleman, who has described him as a minor logistician
with a split personality.
In February 2008, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, admitted
that Abu Zubaydah was one of three prisoners who had been subjected to waterboarding
(an ancient torture technique that involves controlled drowning) in CIA custody.
Held initially in Thailand, and later in Poland, he is one of 14 "high-value
detainees" transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006. At his tribunal
in 2007, he denied being a member of al-Qaeda, and made a point of mentioning
that he had been tortured. He has not yet been put forward for trial by Military
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Kuwaiti/Pakistani, b. 1964 or 1965. The supposed
mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed (commonly known as KSM) was seized
in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on March 1, 2003. Like Abu Zubaydah, he was subjected
to waterboarding, and is also presumed to have been held initially in Thailand,
and later in Poland. Transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, he
confessed to being "responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z"
at his tribunal in 2007, but also made a point of mentioning that he had been
tortured. He was put forward for trial by Military Commission in February, and
will face the death penalty if convicted.
Rumors that KSM was held on Diego Garcia have surfaced sporadically over the
years, one example being an article in the Toronto Star on July 2, 2005
in which Lynda Hurst spoke to John Pike, a U.S. defense analyst. Pike, who told
Hurst that he believed that KSM had been held on Diego Garcia, explained, "Diego
Garcia is an obvious place for a secret facility. They want somewhere that's
difficult to escape from, difficult to attack, not visible to prying eyes and
where a lot of other activity is going on. Diego Garcia is ideal."
Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Yemeni, b. 1972. A friend of the Hamburg cell that
led the 9/11 attacks, bin al-Shibh was seized in a raid in Karachi, Pakistan
on September 11, 2002. He was reportedly intended as the 20th hijacker, but
was unable to obtain a visa to enter the United States, and subsequently worked
closely with KSM in planning the attacks. Transferred to Guantanamo in September
2006, he is also presumed to have been held initially in Thailand, and later
in Poland, but his presence on Diego Garcia has long been suspected, because
analyses of flight records have revealed that a plane flew from Pakistan to
Diego Garcia immediately after his capture. He refused to take part in his tribunal
in 2007, but was put forward for trial by Military Commission in February, and
will face the death penalty if convicted.
Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin). Indonesian, b. 1966. Seized in Ayutthaya,
Thailand in a joint operation by Thai forces and the CIA on 11 August 2003,
he is regarded as the main link between al-Qaeda and its Indonesian counterpart,
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). He is alleged to have been one of the planners of the
Bali bombings in October 2002, which killed over 200 people, and was transferred
to Guantánamo in September 2006. At his tribunal in 2007, he said that
he resigned from JI in 2000, and was not involved with al-Qaeda or with any
bombings or plots. He has not yet been put forward for trial by Military Commission.
Lillie (Mohammed Nazir bin Lep) and Zubair (Mohd Farik bin Amin).
Malaysians, seized with Hambali, little is known of these two men, beyond claims
by the administration that they worked closely with Hambali, although they were
both discussed in another TIME
article, in October 2003, which examined Hambali's interrogation logs. They
were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, but have not yet been
put forward for trial by Military Commission.
Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri). Syrian/Spanish, b. 1958.
Seized in Quetta, Pakistan in October 2005 and handed over to U.S. forces a
month later, he is not accused of being involved in direct attacks on U.S. forces,
but is wanted in Spain as a witness in connection with the 2004 Madrid train
bombings. Regarded as one of the most significant proponents of universal jihad,
his writings include a 1600-page book, The Global Islamic Resistance Call,
which was published on the internet in 2004. A critic of al-Qaeda, he reportedly
fell out with Osama bin Laden in 1998, and has stated that the 9/11 attacks
were catastrophic for the jihadi cause. Unlike the six prisoners mentioned above,
he was not transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, and it is not
known, therefore, whether he is being held in a secret CIA prison or if he has
been rendered to a third country.