After the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA was eager to whisk captured terrorists off to secret locations around the world where its operatives could interrogate them out of the reach of the U.S. legal system and human-rights organizations. But four years later, with about three dozen of al-Qaeda's most hard-core agents in CIA custody, America's new spy chief seems less enthusiastic about the leeway his operatives have had. At a secret briefing for U.S. Senators on Oct. 26, a senior U.S. intelligence official tells TIME, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte was pointedly neutral on Vice President Dick Cheney's Capitol Hill lobbying to have the CIA exempted from legislation banning mistreatment of detainees. "It's above my pay grade," the spymaster said, then artfully dodged another question about whether the harsher interrogation tactics Cheney wants the agency to be free to use actually produce valuable intelligence.
Negroponte's surprising hedge comes at a time when the once dominant Bush hard-liners, including the Vice President, appear increasingly isolated within the Administration. An intense internal debate has erupted over whether new Pentagon procedures for handling captured terrorists should adopt the Geneva Conventions' ban on cruel and degrading treatment. A senior Administration source says National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top military officers favor including the Geneva standards, while Cheney has managed to round up only a few senior Pentagon civilians, such as Under Secretary of Defense Stephen Cambone, to back his opposition to them. Adding to the pressure is the growing international controversy over what amounts to a clandestine CIA prison system. The Washington Post reported last week that the agency at different times has had top al-Qaeda detainees stashed at "black sites" in several East European countries, as well as in Thailand, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Counterterrorism sources have confirmed to TIME that the CIA has had covert detention centers in Thailand and Guantánamo Bay, which are no longer operating, and that the agency continues to run similar facilities in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. In Afghanistan, the agency's prison was once located in an old brick factory near Kabul's airport, nicknamed the Salt Pit by the CIA and the Darkness Prison by inmates. Detainees who have escaped or been released from the prison claim they were kept in cold, dark cells underground, fed once every three days and sometimes chained wet and naked to the wall overnight.
At the request of senior U.S. officials, the Post didn't identify the East European sites. But Human Rights Watch, which has tracked flight routes for a Boeing 737 the CIA has used to transport prisoners, says agency detention facilities have probably been in Poland and Romania, staunch U.S. allies in the Iraq war. Officials from both countries have denied holding CIA prisoners, as have Thai authorities.