Soviet-era compound in northern Poland was site of secret CIA interrogation, detentions
US, Britain asked Poland to join clandestine program
The CIA operated an interrogation and short-term detention facility for suspected terrorists within a Polish intelligence training school with the explicit approval of British and US authorities, according to British and Polish intelligence officials familiar with the arrangements.
Intelligence officials identify the site as a component of a Polish intelligence training school outside the northern Polish village of Stare Kiejkuty. While previously suspected, the facility has never been conclusively identified as being part of the CIA’s secret rendition and detention program.
Only the Polish prime minister and top Polish intelligence brass were told of the plan, in which agents of the United States quietly shuttled detainees from other holding facilities around the globe for stopovers and short-term interrogation in Poland between late 2002 and 2004.
According to a confidential British intelligence memo shown to RAW STORY, Prime Minister Tony Blair told Poland’s then-Prime Minister Leszek Miller to keep the information secret, even from his own government.
“Miller was asked to keep it as tight as possible,” the memo said.
The complex at Stare Kiejkuty, a Soviet-era compound once used by German intelligence in World War II, is best known as having been the only Russian intelligence training school to operate outside the Soviet Union. Its prominence in the Soviet era suggests that it may have been the facility first identified but never named when the Washington Post’s Dana Priest revealed the existence of the CIA’s secret prison network in November 2005.
Reached by telephone Monday, Priest would not discuss the allegations in her article beyond her original report.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano would not confirm or deny any allegations about the Polish facility. He maintained the rendition program was legal and conducted “with great care.”
“The agency’s terrorist interrogation program has been conducted lawfully, with great care and close review, producing vital information that has helped disrupt plots and save lives,” Gimigliano said Monday. “That is also true of renditions, another key, lawful tool in the fight against terror.”
“The United States does not conduct or condone torture, nor does it transfer anyone to other countries for the purpose of torture,” he added.
US intelligence officials confirmed that the CIA had used the compound at Stare Kiejkuty in the past. Speaking generally about the agency’s program, a former senior official said the CIA had never conducted unlawful interrogations.
“We never tortured anyone,” one former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity. “We sent them to countries that did torture, but not on this scale.”
The official added that many agency staff had strong feelings about the rendition program. “Career people were really opposed to this.”
All intelligence sources interviewed said the CIA is no longer operating a rendition or secret detainment program.
Polish intelligence officials declined to comment. Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, the former head of Polish intelligence, told a Polish news agency in 2005, however, that the CIA had access to two internal zones at the Stare Kiejkuty training school. Current and former Polish authorities have adamantly denied that Poland played any role in the clandestine program.
US, United Kingdom invited Poland to join program in 2002
In April 2002, according to British foreign intelligence sources (MI6), senior officials in the Bush and Blair administrations decided that the Bagram base near Kabul in Afghanistan could not operate successfully in the Bush administration’s “no holds barred” policy towards suspected terrorists.
MI6 officials say the two administrations then decided to fly high-value suspected terrorists to secret gulags in Eastern Europe. The CIA-operated flights would pass through the air space of a number of countries ” among them Britain, Germany, Spain and Poland. European Union officials and human rights groups would later say these interrogations may have violated the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which the United States and Poland are both signatories.
After a series of secret meetings chaired by MI6 chief Sir John Scarlett in London and then-CIA Director George Tenet in Washington, Polish intelligence was invited to join the project, British and Polish intelligence sources say.
Authorities singled out a remote and infrequently used airfield in the Northern Polish town of Szymany for transit flights; a near-by Polish intelligence training school at Stare Kiejkuty would be used as an eventual detention-interrogation center for temporary detention and short-term interrogations.
The White House did not return two calls seeking comment. Tenet could not be reached.
Rendition programs were first employed by the Clinton administration in order to target suspected elements of al Qaeda. These covert operations, run out of the CIA, were used intermittently and on a limited basis. It was not until the Bush Administration that the use of extraordinary rendition became a matter of policy and was employed on a large scale.
The Szczytno-Szymany Airport
Szczytno-Szymany used to be a military airfield in northeastern Poland, one of many such airstrips that could accept the large Soviet-made military planes of the Warsaw Pact; before that, it had served as an airstrip for German Luftwaffe bombers targeting Warsaw in the Second World War. In 1996, seven years after Poland’s communist government fell, the military airfield was turned into a private company: Airports “Mazury-Szczytno.”
However, traffic wasn’t heavy enough to provide decent income to the state and private owners of the airfield, so motorcycle and car races were organized on the tarmac; small-scale production and repairs also buttressed the company’s budget.
But after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the US military campaign against Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, everything changed. In the years that followed, American planes began arriving from Afghanistan, continuing on to Morocco, Uzbekistan and Guantanamo Bay, according to Szymany locals and airport staff.
Then-Szymany airport manager Mariola Przewlocka told European Union investigators the flights were likely linked with the intelligence complex at Stare Kiejkuty, about 12 miles away from the airport.
Przewlocka said that whenever one of the suspected flights was scheduled to land, “orders were given directly by the regional border guards” emphasizing that the airport authorities should not approach the aircraft and that military staff and services alone would handle landings.
“Money for the services was paid in cash, sometimes as much as four times the normal charge,” the former airport manager added. “Handling of the passengers aboard was carried out in a remote corner of the Szymany airstrip. People came in and out from four-wheel drive cars with shaded windows.”
The cars were seen traveling to and from the Stare Kiejkuty intelligence facility, where British and Polish intelligence officials say US agents conducted short-term interrogations before shuffling prisoners to other locations.
Przewlocka also spoke in detail with the Chicago Tribune, whose correspondent traveled to Szymany last month.
“Secret prisons” were likely temporary “black sites”
Former European and US intelligence officials indicate that the secret prisons across the European Union, first identified by the Washington Post,are likely not permanent locations, making them difficult to identify.
What some believe was a network of secret prisons was most probably a series of facilities used temporarily by the United States when needed, officials say. Interim “black sites,” secret facilities used for covert activities can be as small as a room in a government building, which only becomes a black site when a prisoner is brought in for short-term detainment and interrogation.
For example, detainees could be shuffled from a temporary black site in one country to a temporary black site in another country, never staying long enough at either to attract notice. Such an arrangement, sources say, would allow plausible deniability by the host country as well as the US. Investigators looking for a permanent facility would never find one. Such a site, sources say, would have to be near an airport.
Washington-based security expert and president of Global Security John Pike says short-term detention in already existing facilities would be “sensible tradecraft” and a more likely scenario than a network of specific, long term prisons.
“A short-term operation does not develop a big signature and you don’t have a continual parade of people,” said Pike. “When it becomes noticeable, they move it all.”
“Itls a shell game,” he added.
Pressure from US and Britain to keep quiet
In the wake of the Washington Post expose, member countries of the European Union began to demand answers.
According to British and Polish intelligence officials, foreign journalists, and EU sources interviewed for this article, the countries participating in the US rendition and detention program and their governments were kept largely out of the loop. Officials say Bush and Blair administration contacts selectively chose politicians in the EU and other countries, keeping their respective governments in the dark.
Having only a select few members of the European Union aware of the program, coupled with the transience of the prison network, made it difficult for European Union investigators to verify allegations of secret detention sites.
A ten-member EU delegation traveled to Poland in November 2006 to investigate Szymany airport and the facility at Stare Kiejstuty. The team’s report indicates that key government officials first agreed to meet with the delegates, but declined to do so after their arrival.
The delegates requested interviews of 20 Polish government officials, journalists and others, but were allowed to speak with only nine. Of those interviewed, only a handful could offer any substantive information.
One of the more interesting interviews came from former Szczytno-Szymany Airport chairman Jerzy Kos. According to the report, Kos stated that at the time the airport was under his authority, it belonged to the Military Property Agency and was leased by his company.
Kos stated that after a Boeing 737 landed on Sept. 22, 2003, a standard military procedure came into force under which Polish Border Guards determined the character of incoming flights and expedited certain arrivals.
“The military procedure was a simplified one, including provision for no customs clearance,” Kos told investigators. He said he had “no information about the passengers as procedure was undertaken by soldiers and not the civilian airport staff.”
Kos asserted that during his tenure from 2003 to 2004, Gulfstream planes transferring through the airport were treated as military flights in the same fashion as the Border Guards had handled the Boeing 737 in September 2003.
Air traffic controllers “had been informed by the Warsaw-based Air Traffic Agency that Gulfstream planes would land at the airport by fax,” Kos told investigators.
Polish public television journalist Adam Krzykowski added more detail.
Krzykowski alleged that the September 2003 Boeing 737 carried a crew of seven and was joined at the Szymany airfield by five passengers who declared themselves businessmen. According to the EU report, Krzykowski maintained that all twelve “were American citizens.”
“The Boeing flight was not subject to standard border control procedure, but to a simplified procedure [which] meant that no customs officers were present during the control and passengers were checked only on basis of a list delivered to the Border Guards,” he said. “According to the Border Guards, such a procedure is used when a person has already been checked up on previously.”
The final report of the European Union’s investigation into Poland as well as the other countries alleged to be part of the rendition program can be read here. Most of those the EU sought to question did not cooperate with investigators, including suspected governments, journalists and key officials in the United States.
Dana Priest, the Washington Post reporter who received a Pulitzer Prize for her article exposing the CIA’s secret detention centers, declined to speak with EU investigators.
“The Post never allows its reporters to testify to government inquiries no matter what government it is, so there was nothing unusual in that regard,” Priest said Monday.
The only member of the Bush Administration given leave to discuss the program with the EU was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said she expected American allies to co-operate and keep quiet about sensitive anti-terrorism operations.
The Reopening of Szymany Airport
The “prime-time” for Szymany International Airport seems to have ended in 2006, when the investigation by the European Parliament was finished without a clear result or definitive proof of “CIA secret prisons” existing in Poland.
Polish officials refused to cooperate and vehemently denied any role in the CIA program. The airport company had to suspend its activities, due to a dispute over the ownership of the Szczytno-Szymany airfield.
In November 2006, the company signed a lease agreement with the Military Property Agency, which still owns the land and the facilities. This agreement opened the way for financing of the airport by the regional administration and the Polish government.
The Szymany airfield, now in civilian hands and allegedly free of “rendition flights,” will soon become a regional airport. Its beautiful location in the Masurian Lakes Region will likely kindle its development, and the fame of its history surrounding secret CIA flights could certainly become an attractive tourist-catching slogan.
Muriel Kane contributed research for this article and John Byrne contributed reporting.
David Dastych is a former Polish intelligence operative, who served in the 1960s-1980s and was a double agent for the CIA from 1973 until his arrest in 1987 by then-communist Poland on charges of espionage. Dastych was released from prison in 1990 after the fall of communism and in the years since has voluntarily helped Western intelligence services with tracking the nuclear proliferation black market in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After a serious injury in 1994 confined him to a wheelchair, Dastych began a second career as an investigative journalist covering terrorism, intelligence and organized crime.