Black sites: What are they and are they legal?

Fast facts about black sites, and the controversy surrounding Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel's role in them.
Gina Haspel
Gina Haspel, deputy director of the CIA, reportedly ran a black site in 2002. Photo: Creative Commons

You may have heard black sites mentioned in connection with Gina Haspel, the current deputy director of the CIA, whom President Trump has nominated to replace Mike Pompeo as head of the agency. Haspel's nomination has attracted criticism and controversy, and black sites are at the center of it.

 

What are black sites?

A black site is a secret prison used by the CIA to interrogate subjects for the purpose of obtaining intelligence. Often, torture techniques such as waterboarding was used. They were established by President George W. Bush after 9/11 to aid in operations against al-Qaeda and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The locations of the black sites were kept top-secret and were known only to the president and a few other officials. Black sites were established in eight countries.

 

Are black sites legal?

That's questionable. The legal status of black site prisoners is not defined, and the authority of the U.S. or other countries to operate them is not authorized by the United Nations. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" were used at the black sites, some of which are considered to rise to the level of torture. Besides waterboarding, other techniques included "wallings," or slamming subjects against a wall, slaps, sleep deprivation and nudity, according to the Washington Post.

 

In April 2009, CIA director Leon Panetta said the U.S. no longer operated black sites.

 

rand paul black sites gina haspel

Sen. Rand Paul speaks out against the nomination of Gina Haspel. Photo: Getty Images

A three-year investigation launched by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2012 found that prisoners held in black sites and subject to torture “did not help the CIA find Osama bin Laden” and “often were counterproductive in the broader campaign against al-Qaeda.” CIA director John Brennan disagreed with the conclusions, saying the information gained at black sites helped avert other strikes against the U.S. You can read their findings in the CIA Torture Report.

What is Gina Haspel's connection to black sites?

On Mar. 13, the Associated Press reported that Haspel oversaw a black site in Thailand in 2002 at which prisoners were tortured. The site, code-named "Cat's Eye," held two suspected al-Qaeda prisoners who were waterboarded. Haspel also wrote a cable in 2005 ordering the destruction of interrogation videos.

The ACLU and several members of Congress have called for a Haspel to fully explain her role in the black site, and the issue will doubtless take center stage at her confirmation hearings. On Mar. 15, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent a letter to Pompeo and Haspel asking for any cables, emails and internal memos related to Haspiel and torture. "Gina Haspel was involved in one of the darkest chapters in American history. Senators who will vote on her nomination MUST know the exact role she played in the CIA’s torture program," tweeted Feinstein.

 
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