An Overview Of U.S. Operated “Black Sites”

“Black Sites” became the term used to describe a series of secret prisons operated by the CIA that emerged after the September 11 attacks. These sites, located outside of U.S. territory, were used to detain and interrogate high-level terrorists. “The point of black sites appears to be to allow detainees to be interrogated in ways that would not have been allowed elsewhere.”[1] While the U.S. government initially denied the existence, location, and alleged practices occurring within these sites, much of this information was later confirmed. Although secret CIA detention was officially abolished under the Obama administration, some still wonder if remnants of this secret prison program remain. The purpose of this overview is to examine the history of black sites, their locations, the methods of interrogation used in the sites, and what, if anything, is left of secret detention under the current administration.




The U.S. use of black sites began during the Bush administration, at which time all information pertaining to the program was kept under wraps. It is alleged that on September 17, 2011, 6 days after the 9/11 attacks, then-President Bush signed a secret document “that gave the CIA broad authorization to disrupt terrorist activity including permission to kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in the world.” [2] It would appear that this document authorized the CIA program of secret detention facilities that are now referred to as black sites. Though the program remained secret, as former detainees were released and began to share their stories, the media and human rights groups began questioning the practices of the U.S. throughout the world. On November 2, 2005, The Washington Post published an article by Dana Priest on a network of CIA prisons, based on leaked classified information that she obtained from a CIA officer who was later fired for her involvement.[3] The article not only confirmed the existence of the black sites but also shed light on their locations and the treatment of detainees at these sites.

After much media speculation, the government eventually confirmed the existence of black sites and authorized their continued use. On September 6, 2006, President Bush publically acknowledged the presence of CIA-operated secret prisons for the first time and boasted about the effectiveness of the program and its techniques.[4] The following year, CIA director Michael Hayden expressed his support for the system of secret detention and stated that less than 100 people had been held in this system since 2002. The director stated that the interrogations were producing valuable information and disputed reports that the agency had been using controversial interrogation techniques.[5] On July 20, 2007, President Bush signed Executive Order 13440, which seemingly authorized CIA detention and interrogation but provided that “conditions of confinement or interrogation practices of the program” may not include torture.[6]

Though the authorization of secret detention started with the Bush administration, it ended almost immediately with the Obama administration. On January 22, 2009, just 2 days after President Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the U.S., he signed Executive Order

13491, which revoked E.O. 13440 and put an end to many of the harsh and highly criticized techniques utilized by the Bush administration. Sec. 4(a) of the order states that “[t]he CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.”[7] Sec. 4(b) further requires that:

All departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall provide the International Committee of the Red Cross with notification of, and timely access to, any individual detained in any armed conflict in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States Government, consistent with Department of Defense regulations and policies.[8]

In April of 2009, Leon Panetta (then director of the CIA and today Secretary of Defense) announced in a letter to staff that the CIA “no longer operates detention facilities or black sites and has proposed a plan to decommission the remaining sites.” [9] This letter seems to mark an official end to CIA involvement in detention in the war against terrorism.



One of the very common questions concerning the CIA program is where exactly these detention sites were located. Because of the secretive nature of the black site system and the controversy surrounding the program, there is little information about the exact locations of the sites. However, according to Amnesty International, the U.S. has operated at least 19 secret detention facilities in at least 11 different countries including: Afghanistan, Cuba, Pakistan, Thailand, Iraq, Morocco and several Eastern European countries.[10] Four of these facilities are said to have been located in Afghanistan.[11]

The “Salt Pit” in Kabul is one of the few black site locations that have garnered individual media attention leading to additional knowledge about the specifics of the facility. In 2002, a prisoner at the Salt Pit was found dead in his cell.[12] “The Salt Pit death was the only fatality known to have occurred inside the secret prison network the CIA operated abroad after the Sept. 11 attacks.”[13]

The Salt Pit was the top-secret name for an abandoned brick factory, a warehouse just north of the Kabul business district that the CIA began using shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. . . .

The CIA wanted the Salt Pit to be a “host-nation facility,” an Afghan prison with Afghan guards. Its designation as an Afghan facility was intended to give U.S. personnel some insulation from actions taken by Afghan guards inside, a tactic used in secret CIA prisons in other countries, former and current CIA officials said.[14]

The “Dark Prison” is believed by some to be another of the black sites located in Afghanistan. Former detainee Binyam Mohammed claims to have been held in this facility, which is said to have “resembled a medieval dungeon with the addition of extremely loud 24-hour music and noise.”[15] A former detainee also spoke of a place referred to as “The Hangar” which reportedly is believed to have been a CIA operated secret detention site located at the Bagram Airbase.[16] Again, because of the extreme secrecy surrounding the entire program much of this information is based on reports from former detainees, so its reliability is uncertain.

Interrogation Techniques


Another area of concern in the CIA black site program under the Bush administration was the interrogation techniques used. It was long alleged that the CIA utilized harsh interrogation techniques in order to garner information from suspected terrorists who were held in black sites. In 2007, former CIA chief Michael Hayden denied allegations that the CIA employed hypothermia, stress positions, and mock drowning in its interrogations of terror suspects, and stated that “that’s a pretty good example of taking something to the darkest corner of the room and not reflective of what my agency does.”[17] Despite his denial, the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” was later confirmed. In a 2008 ABC interview, White House correspondent Martha Raddatz questioned President Bush about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and he responded, “I’m aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved.”[18] A memo obtained through an ACLU FOIA request reveals several techniques that the Office of Legal Counsel approved for CIA use in the case of high value detainees. These included the following techniques (referred to here with the names by which the memo described them): dietary manipulation, nudity, attention grasp, walling, facial hold, facial slap, abdominal slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, water dousing, sleep deprivation and the waterboard.[19]

In 2006, 14 high value detainees were transferred out of CIA detention and into Guantánamo Bay to face charges, a move that led to many revelations about the black site program.[20] In light of this development, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) requested access to these detainees in Guantánamo and issued a confidential report from the information that was learned while interviewing these detainees who had spent time in black sites. The report eventually leaked and, if true, provided an extensive account of the policies and practices of the U.S. inside the secret facilities. It ultimately described the practices inside the CIA facilities as torture.[21] “In its 40-page report, the Red Cross roundly condemned the C.I.A. detention program not only for using torture and other cruel treatment, but also for holding prisoners without notice to governments or families.”[22]

Obama Administration


Although the Obama administration has officially banned CIA-operated detention sites and ensured that all detainees are afforded access to the ICRC,[23] there still have been some lingering allegations of controversial practices. In 2011, it came to light that the U.S. had authorized the detention of a suspected Somali terrorist aboard a Navy vessel in at least one incident.[24] The suspected terrorist was held for two months on a Navy ship where he was interrogated without access to counsel and without a formal charge.[25] Comments made by Admiral William McRaven, current head of US Special Operations Command, at his confirmation hearing indicated that this type of detention does not seem to be an isolated incident. McRaven stated that “in many cases, we will put them on a naval vessel and we will hold them until we can either get a case to prosecute them in U.S. court or . . . . we can return him to a third-party country.”[26] McRaven also stated that if neither of these options are available, then the detainee is to be released.[27]

Another area that has some concerned is the use of temporary detention sites. In April 2011, the Associated Press published a report by Kimberly Dozier in which anonymous U.S. officials confirmed the existence of approximately 20 temporary detention sites in Afghanistan that are used for the purpose of screening detainees.[28] The report states that detainees can be held in these temporary jails for up to nine weeks before they are either released or transferred to a permanent facility (contrary to the Pentagon’s claim that detainees are only held for up to 14 days).[29]

The most secretive [temporary detention site] . . . is run by the military’s elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC], at Bagram Air Base. It’s responsible for questioning high-value targets, the detainees suspected of top roles in the Taliban, al-Qaida or other militant groups.[30]

This particular site is alleged to be located only a short drive from the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP), the United States’ main detention center in Afghanistan.[31] Some believe that the JSOC facility may be the site that detainees refer to as the “Tor Jail.”[32]

Human rights advocates say the severest of the Bush-era interrogation methods are gone, but the conditions at the new interrogation sites still raise questions. Obama pledged when he took office that the United States would not torture anyone, but former detainees describe harsh treatment that some human rights groups claim borders on inhuman.[33]

U.S. representatives deny these allegations.[34] A spokesperson for the ICRC also confirmed that “the group ‘has access to internment, screening, and transit facilities under the control of the Department of Defense.’”[35]

The use of black detention sites is controversial to say the least. It has been subject to both criticism and support. There has been obvious concern over the legality, integrity and effectiveness of such a covert system of internment. Many believe that it is both illegal and unethical to hold individuals for an undetermined amount of time, under what some see as inhuman conditions and without access to any sort of legal system. On the other hand, many believe that the CIA’s former practices were both effective and necessary to ensure the safety of our nation. According to Dana Priest’s 2005 article “intelligence officials defend[ed] the agency’s approach, arguing that the successful defense of the country requires that the agency be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the U.S. legal system or even by the military tribunals established for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.”[36] Former President Bush was quoted as referring to the CIA program as “one of the most vital tools” in the war against terrorism.[37] Regardless of one’s personal take on secret detention, it is worth noting that in times of nationwide fear, the lines begin to blur as to exactly what sort of policies and practices are appropriate.


[1] Secret Prisons: Obama’s Order to Close ‘Black Sites,” The Guardian, Jan. 22, 2009, available at

[2] Dana Priest, CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons: Debate is Growing Within Agency About Legality and Morality of Overseas System Set Up After 9/11, The Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2005, available at

[3] Id.

[4] Brian Knowlton, Bush Acknowledges CIA Prisons Exist – Americas – International Herald Tribune, N.Y. Times, Sept. 6, 2006, available at

[5] Adam Goldman, CIA Chief Defends Detention of Suspects, Associated Press, Sept. 7, 2007, available at

[6] Exec. Order No. 13440, Interpretation of the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 as Applied to a Program of Detention and Interrogation Operated by the Central Intelligence Agency,3 CFR 13440, § 3(b)(i)(a) (issued Jul. 20, 2007), available at

[7] Exec. Order No. 13491, Ensuring Lawful Interrogations, 3 CFR 13491 (issued Jan. 22, 2009), available at

[8] Id. § 4(b).

[9] Statement to Employees by Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon E. Panetta on the CIA’s Interrogation Policy and Contracts, Apr. 9, 2009, available at

[10] Amnesty International, United States Secret Detention Facilities, Map, available at (last accessed on Mar. 7, 2012)

[11] Id.

[12] Adam Goldman & Kathy Gannon, Death Sheds Light on CIA ‘Salt Pit’ near Kabul, Associated Press, Mar. 28, 2010, available at

[13] Id.

[14] Dana Priest, CIA Avoids Scrutiny of Detainee Treatment, Wash. Post, Mar. 3, 2005, available at

[15] Reprieve, Case Profile: Binyam Mohamed, Reprieve U.K., available at (last accessed on Apr. 27, 2012).

[16] Stephen Grey, CIA Rendition: The Smoking Gun Cable, ABC, Nov. 6, 2007, available at

[17] Adam Goldman, CIA Chief Defends Detention of Suspects, Associated Press, Sept. 7, 2007, available at

[18] Full Transcript of ABCs Martha Raddatz Interview with President Bush, ABC News, Apr. 11, 2008, available at id=4634219&page=5#.T3OjvBzBM-I.

[19] Memorandum from Steven G. Bradbury, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, to John A. Rizzo, Senior Deputy Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, Re: Application of 18 U.S.C. 2340-2340A to Certain Techniques That May be Used in the Interrogation of a High Value al Qaeda Detainee, May 10, 2005, available at

[20] Knowlton, supra note 4.

[21] Scott Shane, Report Outlines Involvement of Medical Workers in Abusive C.I.A Interrogations, N.Y. Times, Apr. 6, 2009, available at

[22] Id.

[23] Exec. Order No. 13491, supra note 7.

[24] Ed Pilkington, Obama Under Fire Over Detention of Terror Suspect on US Navy Ship, The Guardian, July 6, 2011, available at

[25] Id.

[26] Nominations of Gen. James D. Thurman, USA, for Reappointment to the Grade of General and to be Commander, United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command/U.S. Forces-Korea; V. Adm. William H. McRaven, USN, to be Admiral and Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command; and Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, USMC, to be General and Commander, International Security Assistance Force/Commander, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan: Hearing Before the S. Comm. on Armed Services, 112th Cong. 36-37 (June 28, 2011) (statement of V. Adm. William H. McRaven), available at

[27] Id. at 37.

[28] Kimberly Dozier, Afghanistan Secret Prisons Confirmed by U.S., Huffington Post, Apr. 8, 2011, available at (originally published by the Associated Press).

[29] Id. For a more detailed overview of the temporary detention sites, see the unconfirmed sites page of our site at

[30] Dozier, supra note 28.

[31] Id.

[32] Jeffery Kaye, Red Cross Confirms Secret Prison at Bagram Where Detainees Have Been Tortured, The Public Record, May 13, 2010, available at

[33] Dozier, supra note 28.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Priest, supra note 2.

[37] Jonathan Karl, ‘High Value’ Detainees Transferred to Guantanamo, ABC News, Sept. 6, 2006, available at .