Geopolitics

Exclusive: Inside A Secret CIA Prison In The Polish Countryside

Documents reveal how American intelligence officers turned a secret training center for Polish security forces into one of the controversial "black site" prisons for terrorism suspects.

The periphery of the base, which had a "Cosmic Top Secret" secrecy level.
The periphery of the base, which had a "Cosmic Top Secret" secrecy level.
Klaus Brill, John Goetz and Frederik Obermaier

STARE KIEJKUTY - The story begins on a wintery Thursday. On Dec. 5, 2002 at 2:56 p.m., a Gulfstream G-IV identified as N63MU lands at the tiny airport of Szczytno-Szymany in northeastern Poland. Its seven passengers get into a SUV with tinted windows and race off.

They drive 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) north, to some woods off rural road 58 near the village of Stare Kiejkuty – to a training center of the Polish secret service.

The center served as a CIA prison until the end of 2003. The seven passengers were presumably six CIA agents, and their first prisoner. More would soon follow.

Prisoners later reported that they had been interrogated and tortured. Today, nearly 10 years later, what happened in Stare Kiejkuty is putting the Polish government and justice system, as well as opposition leaders, in an awkward situtation. They are now facing accusations of acting anti-constitutionally by having tolerated the imprisonment and torture of prisoners in 2002 out of blind loyalty to the United States – and of trying to cover-up the fact.

The center in Stare Kiejkuty is about three hours north of Warsaw, the Polish capital, by car. Polish secret agents and soldiers have been trained here, behind dense rows of conifers and high barbed wire fencing, since the Cold War. The center has its own swimming pool, sports facilities, and shooting range. Satellite images also show a pier by the lake nearby.

To the east of the facility, there are two large country homes. They used to accommodate high-ranking visitors but, according to documents in the possession of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, CIA agents were put up in one of the houses from the end of 2002 on while alleged Islamists were held prisoner in the other. This "Zone B" was apparently even off-bounds to Polish agents. The Americans referred to the area the Poles called the “Forest” as “Quartz” and it had a "Cosmic Top Secret" secrecy level.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA opened secret prisons around the world. They were the focal point of a secret program to abduct suspected terrorists. According to a new report by the American human rights organization Open Society Justice Initiative, at least 54 governments cooperated with the Americans on this.

Countries like Syria are said to have tortured prisoners at the request of the CIA, Germany is said to have given CIA planes fly-over and landing rights, and some countries even let the American intelligence service open secret prisons known as “Black Sites” on their sovereign territories. These countries are said to include Afghanistan, Thailand, Romania and Lithuania. When the facility in Thailand had to be closed down, the CIA apparently sought a replacement facility in Europe and found one in Poland.

Men bound, with their eyes covered

Between Dec. 5, 2002 and Sept. 22, 2003, according to a Council of Europe investigative report, at least seven planes landed in Szymany. The planes bore the identifications N63MU and N379P on their tail fins, and allegedly delivered between eight and 12 prisoners headed for Stare Kiejkuty. Airport employees later told Council of Europe investigators and Polish journalists that a few hours before landing, members of the Polish secret service or border police would call to announce the arrival of a plane.

Not long afterwards, vehicles with the tinted windows would drive up, uniformed personnel would seal off access to the airstrip, and a man would pay a landing fee between 8,000 and 12,000 zlotys (equivalent today to $2,712 to $4,069). That was four to six times as much as normal for this tiny airport, which was usually reserved for planes carrying tourists coming to the region to hunt or fish. All tower employees who weren’t needed in conjunction with the secret plane landings would be asked to leave the tower.

Generally a plane would land shortly afterwards, but didn’t taxi to the terminal. Instead, it would stop at the end of the runway. Vehicles with tinted windows would speed down to the plane, where men – bound with their eyes covered and wearing earmuffs – would be loaded on. Then the planes would take off again, headed – according to official flight records – for Warsaw, Budapest in Hungary or Prague in the Czech Republic.

When the Washington Post revealed the existence of the secret CIA prisons in 2005 it did not mention Poland at the request of the U.S. government, which didn’t want to upset its ally.

Poland’s then president Aleksander Kwasniewski was unaware for a long time of what was going on in Stare Kiejkuty. According to Polish media, Kwasniewski was astonished when in 2003, visiting American president George W. Bush thanked him – he apparently didn’t know that the Americans were running a prison in his country.

To this day Kwasniewski maintains that he didn’t know that the Americans were illegally holding, and even torturing, alleged terrorists in Poland. When he found out about it, he supposedly demanded that the facility be closed and the CIA find someplace else. What is assumed to be the last prisoner flew out of Szczytno-Szymany on Sept. 22, 2003 on a Boeing 737. All those involved doubtlessly hoped that the episode was thus definitely over and that this dark chapter in U.S.-Polish relations would never come to light. They were wrong.

A letter from the International Red Cross to the CIA that mentioned a secret Polish prison and torture was leaked, and lawyers for two of the men suspected of being terrorists by the Americans, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, filed suits against Poland.

The Council of Europe and several human rights organization then got involved, and then in 2008 the Polish justice system opened its own proceedings. At first this was in the hands of Warsaw’s state prosecutor, but just when investigators were about to bring charges against the former head of the Polish secret service, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, the matter was taken out of the Warsaw prosecutor’s hands and – with no reasons given – turned over to the prosecutor in Krakow, Poland’s second largest city.

When, a week ago, Krakow investigators asked for an open-ended extension, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg announced that it intended to declassify documents relating to the secret prison – which created considerable dismay in Warsaw, and had Justice Minister Jaroslaw Gowin talking about "a threat to Polish national security."

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government, that inherited the affair, is not the only one under pressure, but also — and mainly — Social-Democratic opposition politician Leszek Miller who headed the Polish government from 2001 to 2004 and was in power when the Stare Kiejkuty prison was in operation. His signature is said to be on a document giving the U.S. government permission to run the facility, or at least so claims liberal Senator Jozef Pinior, a member of the governing Civic Platform (PO) party. He has long been campaigning for clarification with regard to the matter.

Leszek Miller continues to contest what several international investigations have long established, which is that during his time as Prime Minister there was a CIA prison in Poland. He has only bad things to say to say about Senator Pinior, whom he describes as a “scoundrel.”

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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