38 Retired Military Leaders Call on Congress to End Secret Prisons

WASHINGTON—Thirty-eight retired generals and admirals today appealed to the United States Senate to enact legislation ending the practice of holding “ghost detainees” by requiring that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) be notified of and given access to all prisoners in the custody of the U.S. intelligence community, including those held in secret prisons.


The retired military leaders, convened by Human Rights First, wrote in support of a bipartisan amendment to the pending defense authorization bill. The amendment (#5369), co-sponsored by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), would bring the intelligence community in line with U.S. military practices regarding ICRC access to detainees, effectively ending the current policy permitting the CIA to hold “ghost prisoners.”

The full text of the letter and list of signers can be found here.

The letter from retired generals and admirals underscores the importance to the safety of American military personnel of upholding the norm of ensuring Red Cross access to all prisoners held in international armed conflict. It states: “When we violate this norm ourselves, by holding prisoners in secret—‘off the books’ — denying that they are in our custody and refusing to permit the Red Cross access to them to monitor their treatment, we dangerously undermine our ability to demand that our enemies adhere to it, now and in future wars.” The full text of the letter, along with a list of signatories, with biographic information, follows this release.

Under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC has the responsibility of visiting detention facilities around the world to ensure that prisoners of war and other detainees are treated humanely as required by international humanitarian law. The ICRC’s findings regarding conditions and treatment are confidential and are communicated only to the detaining authority. In order to ensure humane treatment, many countries — including the United States — have provided ICRC access to their prisoners and prisons even outside the sphere of international armed conflict.

The bipartisan amendment reaffirms long-standing and binding U.S. commitments — under the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other provisions of international and domestic law — to refrain from holding prisoners in secret and hiding them from the ICRC, the independent international body entrusted with oversight of compliance with the laws of war. The amendment is intended to create a check against torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment under the CIA’s secret detention program. After years of refusing to deny or confirm the existence of an executive order authorizing this program, the President finally acknowledged in September 2006 that that the U.S. government was operating a secret detention system in which prisoners were held without official acknowledgement, even to the ICRC.

“Holding people in secret facilities as ‘ghost prisoners’ sets the stage for torture and other forms of cruelty,” stated Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First. “That is why the United States in the past has always condemned the practice when other governments engaged in it. Mandating Red Cross access to prisoners in the custody of the U.S. intelligence community stops short of requiring public disclosure of the locations or conditions of these facilities, but it would provide a prudent measure of outside oversight on a detention program that continues to be shrouded in secrecy and has resulted in the torture and deaths of detainees in U.S. custody.”

The United States government has not acknowledged the exact number of people in the CIA detention and interrogation program. Since the inception of the program, the CIA has reportedly operated detention centers in Afghanistan, the island of Diego-Garcia, Djibouti, Thailand, Jordan, Morocco, Eastern Europe, including Poland and Romania, and Guantánamo Bay. It is unclear where the CIA is currently detaining prisoners.


Published on September 15, 2008


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