While an international debate rages over the future of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the military has quietly expanded another, less-visible prison in Afghanistan, where it now holds some 500 terror suspects in more primitive conditions, indefinitely and without charges.
Pentagon officials have often described the detention site at Bagram, a cavernous former machine shop on an American air base 40 miles north of Kabul, as a screening center. They said most of the detainees were Afghans who might eventually be released under an amnesty program or transferred to an Afghan prison that is to be built with U.S. aid.
But some of the detainees have already been at Bagram for as long as two or three years. And unlike those at Guantanamo, they have no access to lawyers, no right to hear the allegations against them and only rudimentary reviews of their status as "enemy combatants," military officials said.
Privately, some administration officials acknowledge that the situation at Bagram has increasingly come to resemble the legal void that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 affirming the right of prisoners at Guantanamo to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.
While Guantanamo offers carefully controlled tours for members of Congress and journalists, Bagram has operated in rigorous secrecy since it opened in 2002. It bars outside visitors except for members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and refuses to make public the names of those held there. The prison may not be photographed, even from a distance.
From the accounts of former detainees, military officials and soldiers who served there, a picture emerges of a place that is in many ways rougher and more bleak than its U.S. counterpart on Cuba. Men are held by the dozen in large wire cages, the detainees and military sources said, sleeping on the floor on foam mats and, until about a year ago, often using plastic buckets for toilets. Before recent renovations, they rarely saw daylight except for brief visits to a small exercise yard.
Former detainees said the renovations improved conditions somewhat, and humans rights groups said reports of abuse had declined steadily there since 2003. The military's chief spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. James Yonts, refused to discuss detainee conditions, other than to say repeatedly that his command was "committed to treating detainees humanely, and providing the best possible living conditions and medical care in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Conventions."
Other military and administration officials said the growing detainee population at Bagram, which rose from about 100 prisoners at the start of 2004 to as many as 600 at times last year, according to military figures, was in part the result of a Bush administration decision to shut off the flow of detainees into Guantanamo after the Supreme Court ruled that those prisoners had some basic due-process rights under U.S. law. Until the court ruling, Bagram functioned as a central clearing house for the global fight against terror. But according to interviews with current and former administration officials, the New York Times reports, the National Security Council effectively halted the movement of new detainees into Guantanamo at a Cabinet-level meeting at the White House on Sept. 14, 2004.
Wary of further angering Guantanamo's critics, the council authorized a final shipment of 10 detainees eight days later from Bagram, the officials said. But it also indicated that it wanted to review and approve any Defense Department proposals for further transfers. No such proposals have been considered, officials said.
Yet Bagram's expansion, which was largely fueled by growing numbers of detainees seized on the battlefield and a bureaucratic backlog in releasing many of the Afghan prisoners, also underscores the Bush administration's continuing inability to resolve where and how it will hold more valuable terror suspects.
Military officials with access to intelligence reporting on the subject said about 40 of Bagram's prisoners were Pakistanis, Arabs and other foreigners, some of whom were previously held by the CIA in secret interrogation centers in Afghanistan and other countries. Officials said the intelligence agency had been reluctant to send some of those prisoners on to Guantanamo because of the possibility that their CIA custody could eventually be scrutinized in court.