Harsh Treatment Reported In Secret American Prison

Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is the site of a secret prison where detainees are held incommunicado and without access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to reports this weekend in the New York Times and Washington Post. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with New York Times' terrorism reporter Eric Schmitt about the conditions at the detention center.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Liane Hansen's away.

Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is a site of a secret prison where detainees are held incommunicado, according to articles this weekend in The Washington Post and the New York Times. Both papers interviewed former detainees who described harsh conditions at the so-called black site of the kind that the Obama administration had said it would shut down.

According to The Washington Post, two teenagers, who said they were detained at the base, described being beaten. One said he was forced to view pornography while being interrogated. News of the secret prison comes as President Obama prepares to announce his decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Joining us now is terrorism correspondent Eric Schmitt, the New York Times reporter. He's joining us from his home in Virginia. Eric, thanks for being with us.

Mr. ERIC SCHMITT (Reporter, New York Times): Sure, Jacki.

LYDEN: Tell us a little bit more about this secret prison within a prison at Bagram. It's separate from the regular prison.

Mr. SCHMITT: It is. It's actually a separate site, small site that the military Special Operations forces have maintained for several years now. And what they have intended to use this for is to interrogate prisoners that they take off the battlefield in Afghanistan. They will - few will have information valuable to breaking up terrorist attacks or attacks on American forces there.

LYDEN: What kind of detainees are kept there? Your colleague, Alissa Rubin, who also authored this report, said that some of the things the former detainees described sound terribly familiar.

Mr. SCHMITT: Yes, my colleague Alissa interviewed three different detainees, who over the last year, spent up to five to six weeks, actually, in this site. And these sites have concrete, windowless cells, where she reports light was on 24 hours a day and that they were basically kept in isolation during that period except for twice-daily interrogations.

LYDEN: And does the international - could maybe the Red Cross have access to this site and these prisoners?

Mr. SCHMITT: Not for the period in time which they're kept there. These prisoners eventually were transferred into the main prison at Bagram and that is where their families are notified that they're there and the Red Cross may visit them there.

LYDEN: This seems to be exactly the kind of site that President Obama said he would get rid of. And, in fact, he signed an order in January eliminating black sites run by the CIA. This, of course, is the Army Special Operations. I guess the order doesn't apply.

Mr. SCHMITT: It does not apply to this site or a similar site that's in Iraq. There's a difference here, Jacki, in that the CIA sites, the prisoners there were truly held incommunicado for months at a time, really. We had no idea where the prisons were. In this case, these are facilities that are essentially temporary holding facilities that the military uses.

The policy had been up to, in this case it seems, five or six weeks. This is the outer limits for detainees. The Obama administration earlier this summer, however, restricted that. They basically said you can only maintain prisoners at these temporary sites up to two weeks now, and then they either have to be released or they have to be put into the general prison population where the Red Cross and all can visit them.

LYDEN: We're hearing about this while President Obama is preparing to announce his decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan. That's a plan he's going to have to sell to the American people. What do you think the effect's going to be?

Mr. SCHMITT: Well, I think it brings back all the bad memories of what was going on in Iraq during some of the worst cases there. Bagram, of course, has been operational for several years now, but it didn't get a whole lot of attention, mostly because of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and also Guantanamo Bay. Now, with the focus shifting to Afghanistan, this puts the president in a tough spot with this kind of publicity of these kinds of facilities they're still operating there.

LYDEN: Eric Schmitt is a terrorism correspondent for the New York Times. We reached him at his home in Fairfax, Virginia. Thank you very much, Eric.

Mr. SCHMITT: You're welcome.

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