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December 08, 2005

What secret prisons? Poland finally takes a look

It has been over a month since the Washington Post broke the story of the world-wide network of CIA "black sites," or secret prisons. Two such prisons were said to be located in two Eastern European countries. It has been almost a month since Human Rights Watch identified the two countries as Poland and Romania. It is only now, prompted by the ABC website's possibly accidental posting of a list of Al-Qaeda prisoners with the location of their detention identified as Poland, that Polish newspapers are beginning to act on the story. Both Gazeta Wybrocza and Rzeczpospolita, the two Polish papers with pretensions of national significance, are now running major stories about the prison scandals.

One of the most remarkable things about the two pieces is how heavily they rely on American media sources. Both of them use the original Washington Post story as their base, and beef it up by citing pieces from ABC news, the New Yorker and the Associated Press. From these sources, the Polish papers present the now-familiar facts of the case: that the CIA had run a secret prison in Poland since 2002, housed in the Stare Keijkuty Polish secret service base; that suspects were flow into the country on CIA-run Boeing planes at Szymany airport, 20km away; and that these prisoners included senior members of the Al-Qaeda leadership, including Khalid Sheik Muhammad. It has also been alleged that "harsh interrogation" - torture - of these suspects occurred while they were in Poland.

The Polish press does have the advantage of proximity to the Polish political figures implicated in this scandal, but it uses it to little effect. The political leaders that have stridently denied the current or past existence of secret CIA prisons include Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lech Kaczynski (the former and current Presidents of Poland), Leszek Miller and Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz (the former and current Prime Ministers), the chiefs of the secret service and the minister of defense. So far, no cracks in the monolithic denials of officialdom are visible, and even opposition politicians seem to have little stomach for an inquiry - although the idea of a Sejm (parliamentary) investigation into the affair has been mooted, such an inquire, in a delicious irony, is supported only by the extreme-right, theocratic League of Polish Families, which is apparently the only political party in Poland willing to stand up against such flagrant human rights abuses.

But these articles, composed by alternatively repeating US material and official Polish denials, beg the question as to why there hasn't been more aggressive investigative reporting by these newspapers. Although it can be surmised that journalists in Poland have had tough luck cultivating sources inside the security apparatus, and certainly the unified denials of all the relevant political figures don't help, one article in Rzeczpospolita suggests a more interesting answer.

Iwona Trusewicz, may god grant her a cushy bureau chief gig, actually did the research on Stare Keijkuty. She describes the compound from satellite images (the only images available - photographing such sites is a crime) and traveled out to the region to interview locals. She describes finding a climate of fear, with residents alternatively refusing to speak with her and loudly complaining about the inconvenience they faced from all the security restrictions imposed by the Polish Secret Service. She was not able to collect a great deal of information, since after her second interview her team was detained by uniformed guards and brought to the chief of security of the compound. Their equipment was examined, their personal information taken down, but since they had not actually violated the law (either by trespassing on the base property or photographic prohibited installations) they were (quite reluctantly) released. Trusewicz asked to speak with the camp director, but was turned down. Also refused was her request for the director's name and rank, or even that of her interrogator. If the leg work is this unpleasant and fruitless (and possibly damaging - it's unclear what the Secret Service intends to do with her personal information) then we shouldn't be surprised if Polish journalists content themselves with citing ABC.

Posted December 8, 2005 02:57 AM

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