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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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The CIA holds dozens of top al-Qaeda leaders in secret prisons around the world, including in Eastern Europe. The locations of the prisons, even their very existence, is known to just a few officials in the US and the countries where they're located. We don't know exactly who's held, the interrogations method that's used on them or how long they've been detained. Dana Priest, national security reporter for The Washington Post, broke the story in today's newspaper and joins us now from The Washington Post. Dana, nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. DANA PRIEST (The Washington Post): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: We've known that top al-Qaeda leaders, like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, people like that were being held somewhere. You have more information about where.

Ms. PRIEST: Yes. Part of the reporting shows that there have been a total of about eight sites in the last four years, including, surprisingly to us, several Eastern European democracies, as well as a site in Gitmo that's closed, one in Afghanistan that's closed, and one Thailand that was closed.

CONAN: And Gitmo, of course, Guantanamo Bay.

Ms. PRIEST: Exactly. And so as you say, we don't know much about how they're treated. We know that the CIA has in their power to conduct what they call enhanced interrogation techniques. We don't really know what those techniques are, though.

CONAN: But presumably enhanced because they go beyond the Army Field Manual. We've heard a lot from Senator McCain and others most recently about an amendment to--a defense appropriations bill that would limit all US forces everywhere to the Army Field Manual techniques, and so enhanced presumably goes beyond that.

Ms. PRIEST: Well, we know that it does include things like waterboarding. And what does that mean? It means you pour water into someone's mouth through a towel and it's a sensation that makes them think they're drowning. So that's one technique that we have unearthed. But Senator McCain wants his legislation to cover everyone in US custody--that was written that way because of these CIA sites. Now we know the extent of the sites, I think, and we also know that the vice president, as well as the CIA, now have given McCain language that would create an exemption for the CIA and, therefore, exempt them from the McCain legislation.

CONAN: Thus far, he's resisted including that legislation in the amendment. That passed, I think, overwhelmingly in the Senate 90-to-9, I think.

Ms. PRIEST: That's right.

CONAN: But getting back to this system, these ghost detainees--again, beyond, you know, the names that we've all heard of, the two or three that we're familiar with, who are these people? How many of them are there?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, we think there are about 30 at any one time, could be a little bit more or less. And they are Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Zubaydah. The top al-Qaeda leaders have been identified as being captured over the years. But I think there are also people who are moved into them who they believe are of significant value, and then they may find that they're not really, and then they go into what I second tier system. It is black in the sense that it's covert, and not much is known about it, but it includes even more countries and less control by the CIA. These are people that are rendered to other countries, and by and large, the other country has control over them; although the CIA may, at times, assist in their interrogations or feed them questions. But at the black sites, there is no one other than the CIA that visits them, no International Red Cross, no members of the congressional oversight committees--nobody, except the CIA.

CONAN: Indeed, that's why they are held in sites overseas.

Ms. PRIEST: Exactly. It would be illegal in the United States to hold anybody in that way, because people have legal rights here. Even suspected terrorists have legal rights in the United States. And it would be illegal to do that under the laws of those Eastern European democracies that I mentioned; although we didn't mention them by name. That is why it's a covert action, because it is illegal in those countries and, therefore, it has to be a covert action if they're going to do that. The covert action authority gives them permission to operate in a way that they couldn't operate in in the United States if they're dealing with foreigners in foreign countries. So it's likely that only the president or prime minister of a given country might know about this. It's certain that the intelligence head of the given country would know about it, and the CIA would generally leave it up to the intelligence chief of the other country to tell or not to tell any elected official.

CONAN: Is the suggestion that they have moved these facilities from time to time--again, you talked about one in Thailand that has since been closed--because of such sensitivities, the fear that they may have worn out their welcome?

Ms. PRIEST: Yes. It's--both sensitivities internally, but also when the media writes any of these, that causes more sensitivities because they must figure the publics there would not support that, which calls into question the larger endgame here, and I spoke with former and current intelligence officials who really worried about this, and they worried that the White House and the CIA were not coming up with an endgame and that the CIA would be left sort of holding the bag and that this is not--jailing people and maintaining them and even interrogating them is really not the core mission of the CIA. The core mission is espionage.

CONAN: Yet, the problem being, as a lot of people have said, that once you arrest a Khalid Sheik Mohammed, what do you do with him?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, other countries have found other ways. European countries, for instance, don't have these sorts of secret facilities. In Europe, they have created special terrorism courts. They have created special laws. If they don't create courts, they have created special laws that give the countries a longer period of time to hold and question people without exactly the same kind of legal protections that someone accused of a regular crime, if you will, would get. So we are the only democracy that I know of who has elected to do it in a secret way, and others have come up with other ways to do that.

CONAN: Speaking of secret, the assumption is, in reading your article, that you know where this site currently in Eastern Europe and where others have been, but chose not to disclose those names at the request of the administration.

Ms. PRIEST: Well, that's right. I didn't make that decision. It's the decision made by our executive editor, Lin Downie. But senior administration officials did ask us not to publish the names of the countries that we had, and after--and they made an argument, and they made--their principal argument that--was that it could lead to possible disruption of counterterrorists' cooperation with those countries and possible terrorist retaliation against those countries. So that was considered here, and the decision was taken by Lin to withhold the names.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line; (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us. John is calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I happened to be flipping through the radio channels earlier today, and I happened to hear a popular right-wing radio host discussing this exact article, and I was just curious as to how your guest responds to his assertions that the facts that she obtained not only were inaccurate, leaked facts from the CIA, because of maybe some tension between the CIA and the White House or disagreement how the war effort has been handled, and secondly, that it's just a continuing effort by certain people--I guess the implication, people on the far left--to undermine the war effort.

CONAN: Dana Priest.

Ms. PRIEST: Well...

CONAN: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Ms. PRIEST: I guess I would say that both of those are unfounded and actually ridiculous because I'm not part of either side of that argument and my motives are not on either side of that argument. So the idea that people are leaking to me, coming to me is unfounded, and we at The Post have covered this issue for quite a while because it is one of the more unconventional ways that the administration is choosing to fight the war on terror. The basic question that I've been trying to answer is how is the CIA fighting the war on terror? One of the more unusual ways that it's doing that is to capture and then hold on its own and interrogate on its own these prisoners. That is perhaps not unprecedented; although I couldn't--I definitely could not find an example of a penal co--system set up like this. The CIA has had captors during the Cold War that it interrogated, but this is a new--in general, this is a new unchartered waters for the agency, and even people within the agency have questions about its efficacy, its morality, the wisdom of doing this, and ultimately whether or not--when it is exposed in this day and age, when it's so hard to keep secrets, whether there'll be political blow-back and one would imagine that they thought of all those things in the beginning, and so I am just trying to lay that out.

CONAN: Let me add another question to John's, and that is in an age where we're all worrying more about use of anonymous sources, your report's full of a lot of them.

Ms. PRIEST: Absolutely. There was no one that was willing to be quoted by name, even by particular title, and that's--unlike when a White House talks about, you know, political maneuvering or something like that, you are--I am talking in the story about sensitive information, and that is why they chose not to be identified. I, of course, push everybody to try to identify them, but there are times when it's totally understandable why they would not be identified.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the question.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can quickly get to Scott, and Scott's with us from St. Louis, Missouri.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes. I have a question about this. If you have a CIA operative that gets caught undercover somewhere else in the world and they're not wearing the US flag, they're not entitled to the Geneva Convention in the same way that Khalid Sheik Mohammed is not entitled to Geneva Convention. I mean, we shouldn't torture him and pull his fingernails out, but he was the mastermind behind 9/11, and I think we need to do whatever we need and do it secretly. He's as big as bin Laden. He's a king, too. Do you believe that he is under Geneva Convention? Is he covered under Geneva Conventions?

Ms. PRIEST: Well, you know, the administration has ruled that even enemy--that they will extend the obligations of Geneva even to enemy combatants who are in Guantanamo, and I would think--but I have to extrapolate here that someone like Khalid Sheik Mohammed would not be considered a regular POW, a prisoner of war, but would be considered an enemy combatant. So as far as the administration goes, they say that they are extending the rights given under the Geneva Conventions to the enemy combatants, and that's all I have to go on on that.

The larger--your larger question is one that I hear quite a bit when I write stories like this. There are people on both sides, there are people who believe that the United States should do anything that is necessary to defeat terrorism, and that includes torturing people. And there are people on the other side who say is us un-American and we should not use their tactics or stoop to their levels, and if we do, we'll lose our soul. So you have a very passionate argument on both sides, and I am on neither side. As a journalist, I am trying to describe the system.

One of the other facts in this case, in this story is that the normal oversight on intelligence matters is not there on these issues. Normally, the entire committee on both the House and the Senate side of the intelligence committees would be looking at this, judging it, pushing the agency in one direction or another, if they thought they were going overboard or not being aggressive enough, but they are denied information about this.

CONAN: Dana Priest, thanks very much.

Ms. PRIEST: My pleasure.

CONAN: Dana Priest is Washington Post national security reporter. Her story about the CIA secret prisons appeared in today's issues of the newspaper.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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