The time of patriots: the unsettling truth about a CIA prison in Poland. An interview with Adam Bodnar

The close alliance of the USA and Poland is strained again after the US Senate report on ”dark sites” in Europe again drew attention to the infamous project of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by CIA officers in Eastern European countries. The presented facts have unnerved Poles and have reignited a heated debate in Poland – on the responsibilities and duties of politicians, morality and patriotism . . . and money.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Ace Armstrong


The report on the extreme use of torture in secret prisons run by the CIA in Europe was presented by the US Senate Intelligence Committee in December. In the declassified portion the names of the countries involved and other data are blackened out, but the media easily deciphered that the ”Detention Site Blue” was located in Poland. Poles were said to have aided the United States in transporting detainees and had agreed to organize a so-called “black site” on their territory, where the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (like waterboarding or deprivation of sleep) were used. The report reveals more details. For example, it states that at some point the country – which seems to be Poland – hesitated to accept another prisoner, but became more flexible after the intervention of an American ambassador. Some time later Poland accepted millions of dollars from the CIA. Although these facts were earlier reported by media, they have now been confirmed by the US Senate committee – and this should generate a Polish reaction.

Since 2005 when The Washington Post published the first story on this subject, 1 Polish politicians have steadfastly denied that they knew about CIA interrogations taking place in Poland. Yet in 2008 an investigation was started by the Polish Public Prosecutor General and is still pending.

In July 2014 the European Court of Human Rights ruled 2 that Warsaw was involved in the secret prison program and had to pay hundreds of thousands of euros damages to two men who were imprisoned and interrogated in Poland: Abu Zubaydah, suspected of running an Al Qaeda facility in Pakistan, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, believed to have planned the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.

How will the US Senate report influence the way Poland deals with the inconvenient facts? We ask Adam Bodnar, a human rights lawyer and a vice president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw.

Americans got the US Senate committee report on the CIA ”black sites”. Should Poland have a similar report? And would it bring an end to this issue?

First, I would like to underline that the report does not end this case in the States. The expectation of many Americans was that the report would clarify all aspects of this issue. Still the question about the responsibility of people in charge of the CIA at that time is left unanswered. As Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in the New York Times on the day of the report’s presentation, this was the time the President could announce amnesty for the people involved. It would mean that they were responsible, even if they were not punished. But so far, the only person who has been held responsible is John Kiriakou, the CIA officer, who decided to disclose the use of torture during interrogations.  He is the only person who has actually been sentenced, when he should be rehabilitated. His revelation of the information was in the public interest. Nevertheless, I do think that United States has done a lot to give an explanation in this difficult case.

How does it compare to Poland?

In Poland there is a prosecutor investigation but it is run very slowly. The question now is if the presentation of the US Senate report will change that. Even if the charges are pressed to the court – which, due to the political situation, I personally believe is less and less likely – the trial will probably proceed behind a closed door. In such case the public will not learn the details of Polish and American intelligence cooperation.

But why is it in the public interest to learn these details? We do not know about many things connected with security issues…

The problem is that in Poland it is either black or white: public or behind a closed door. While Americans showed how it could be done – they did not disclose the whole 6,000-page report, but they disclosed 500 pages.

But do we actually need to know the details?

In my opinion we have to know the mechanisms of cooperation between Polish and American intelligence and what our politicians’ level of involvement was. Why? Because only then can we learn if we have control over our secret services and politicians. Did they really not know about the use of torture? What was to be included in this famous memorandum that was never signed? 3 Was it proof of Polish sensitivity or rather an attempt to justify the facts, as it was discussed when the interrogations were already proceeding? These things have to be explained.

There is also another thing:  between 2005 – 2008 when the European Parliament and Dick Marty’s commission (created by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) were carrying out their investigations, the Polish side was simply lying. For example, during one of the meetings with the delegations of those investigative committees, Polish representatives read the Polish Constitution, and said that torture could not happen on Polish soil, because it is absolutely prohibited. Our representatives were claiming that there were no such prisons, refusing all kinds of cooperation with the investigating bodies etc. . . . Because Poland is a member of European Union, and for the sake of our relations with international bodies, this case should be clarified at last.

If we decide to use the American procedure in Poland, the case should be handled by the Parliamentary (Sejm) Committee on Secret Services. But to tell you the truth, I do not believe that the Committee would really deal with it seriously… After all, it is a body that has been continuously criticized because it acts on particular political interests. This shows that we actually have no civil control over our secret services.

It seems that neither the opposition nor the ruling coalition has any interest in bringing some light to this case. Everyone tries to keep themselves as far away as possible…

It is interesting that there were moments when this specific political consensus was broken – e.g. in 2008 when Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the Public Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ćwiąkalski decided to start an official investigation. It seemed to be a turning point, because at the beginning the prosecutor was very active.

Poland was the only country – among those being mentioned in the context of the CIA interrogation program in Eastern Europe – that actually started the investigation, but it was over 6 years ago.  Why has it slowed down? What was done in these years?

First, the team of prosecutors changed two times. Now the investigation is done by the Appeals Prosecutor in Kraków. We may ask why there was a need to change the prosecutors? Maybe this is because the first two teams were too active and wanted to file a bill of indictment to the court? Second, the political climate is not favorable for an investigation. For years, prosecutors claimed that they were waiting for US assistance, but it seems it was a safe excuse for further prolongation and no closure of the investigation.

Investigation is one thing. But were there any attempts by politicians to clarify the case of “dark sites”?

There were the activities of Janusz Palikot and Robert Biedroń from Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota, now the name changed to Twój Ruch). They have made significant statements on the case. I also know that Robert Biedroń met representatives of some of the Guantanamo detainees, which was quite a brave and unique move. . Another person who wanted to learn the truth about these “dark sites” was – and still is – Józef Pinior from Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska PO).  For me he is a true hero – by his actions he proves that his fight for democracy and human rights in the times of Solidarity in the underground should consequently continue in a new, democratic Poland. I wish that other Solidarity leaders had a similar passion and understanding of the absolute prohibition of torture that is included in our Constitution; but Mr. Pinior is the last on the list. There is not much political interest. Still prosecutors should act more independently regardless of the political climate.

I understand that in your opinion to be able to close this case, we should have a report of our own parliamentary commission plus finish the prosecution’s investigation?

Yes. These two canals are necessary as the prosecutor will not be able to explain all the details. One thing is the creation of the CIA prison, another, the political involvement of Polish representatives and the question about the money that Poland is said to have received from Washington. 4 Yet another thing is drawing conclusions for the future.

We have been discussing the legal and political aspects of this case. But it also has an ideological angle – there have been comments that it is a matter of patriotism not to reveal Poland’s involvement or to blame the country as it can harm our interests. The former Prime Minister Leszek Miller even described people writing about the CIA prisons as “useful idiots”. 5  Let me ask you this question – do you feel a patriot or an idiot?

I am a patriot. And I want to really stress it – ever since I started to deal with this case, I do feel a patriot – because for me to be a patriot means I treat the Polish Constitution of 2 April 1997 seriously.

During these years I have not changed my mind and my views – I have said the same things. One may check it easily in Internet archives or in my academic papers. But I remember very well how in the beginning some journalists, even very respectable ones, did not want to believe what had happened; they treated it as a gossip or some odd CIA game. From these early denials of the flights of CIA planes, denials of the very existence of the prisons and the undermining of the Strasbourg Tribunal sentence, we have now reached the point where it is ”unpatriotic” to talk about this issue.

While the simplest way of looking at it could be the best – it was against the constitution, which is the basic legal framework of the country. It seems that Americans, themselves, did not want to breach their constitution within their borders, but they wanted the Poles to do it…

It is much more than a Constitution! It reaches our own, Polish historical experiences – sometimes very painful. There is a reason why the issue of torture is stated so strongly in the Polish constitution… (In article 40 we read: ‘nobody can be exposed to torture or cruel, inhuman or humiliating treatment or punishment. It is forbidden to use corporal punishment.’) Also in the past we had such close “relations” with another country, which claimed to be our ally.  This is why we should be very sensitive to such forms of cooperation.

The aspect of human rights, of respect for a human being in foreign policy is a very interesting one. It seems that it is treated in a flexible way… We talk a lot about human rights in Ukraine, but do not consider it an important issue in other countries… Do you think that it is possible at all to conduct foreign policy in the contemporary world with complete respect for human rights?

I do believe in it deeply.

There are rich countries that do it: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland – the Scandinavian states treat human rights seriously. We are in a different position. First, we are not so rich and we need markets to export our products to –  we need to trade – but nevertheless, in my opinion it is possible to carry out an active foreign economic policy with stress on human issues. The worst is when at one moment we say these highly moral things, and next we do completely different things. Just the other day our Vice-Prime Minister Janusz Piechociński visited Azerbaijan. Our colleagues in this country are currently in prison, although we know they have not committed any crime, apart from fighting for a democratic, free state. We have been trying to bring their case to the public light… So on one hand Poland is very vocal about Ukraine and Belarus, and supporting human rights activists there, but on the other hand one of our main politicians goes to Azerbaijan and only talks business. Even the media are not interested in it. How can we be a credible partner for the West or the East? Nobody will take our diplomacy seriously. It is actually a pity because human rights and a transformation experience could be our perfect “export product”. I think that the tradition of Solidarity and our position among CEE countries has obliged us to care about democratic values and human rights. We owe and should give credit to political prisoners, journalists and human rights defenders living in authoritarian states. We have to help them fight for freedom – in the same way the West helped us in 70s and 80s.

Are you expecting too much from Poland? All countries have their interests –quite often business goes first for our Western partners too … and you cannot say that Poland did nothing – after all, we started an investigation…

For me the example of how to rightly behave in such a situation has been set by Italy. Italy was linked to this CIA program – but only once. Rome allowed the head of the Milan office to kidnap one man, who was taken out of the country, tortured and then brought back and released. There were 23 CIA agents involved in this operation. An Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro, hardened in confrontations with the mafia, started an investigation, pressed charges in the court and they were all sentenced in absentia. Great Britain also treated it seriously and had a very thorough parliamentary investigation and paid damages to the men arrested in the operation, in which British agents were active.

What does it tells us about Poland?

It shows the general attitude towards human rights and the constitution. Politicians will not deal with human rights issues unless there is strong evidence that for some groups it matters. When mothers of handicapped children organize and protest, politicians may consider acting, but human rights in some countries abroad are actually alien to them.

And what should we learn from the “dark sites” case?

Next time before politicians make such decisions, they will think twice.  Now they know that in the contemporary world it is difficult to hide anything. This case, by coincidence, happened at the time when the request for more transparency in public life is growing stronger and stronger. I think it can be a very positive lesson, because clarifying things is strength of democracy.

Notes:

  1.  Dana Priest, “CIA holds terrorist suspects in secret prisons,” in Washington Post, November 2, 2005.
  2.  European Court of Human Rights, “Secret rendition and detention by the CIA in Poland of two men suspected of terrorist acts,” July 24, 2014.
  3.   Polish officials asked CIA to sign a memorandum, definying the requests and responsibilities of the American side and also confirming that detainees will be treated as POWs. The document has never been signed by Americans.
    Newsweek Polska, “Kwaśniewski przyznaje się do tajnych więzień CIA,” December 10, 2014.
  4. It was claimed by media that Poland received from cc 15 mln USD in 2003. (Washington Post, “The hidden history of the CIAs prison in Poland,” January 23, 2014.) According to the daily „Gazeta Wyborcza”,  it was 30 mln USD . How the money was spent is not known – there are opinions that it was to „soften” Poland’s stand on the interrogation programme or – that it was spent on different intelligence operations. In January this issue will be examined by the Parliamentary Committee on Secret Services .
  5. Gazeta Wyborcza, “Więzienia CIA w Polsce: Leszek Miller się broni,” May 31, 2011.
Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.

Adam Bodnar

Adam Bodnar

is vice-president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, assistant professor in the Human Rights Chair, Law Faculty, Warsaw University. He is also member of the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Torture Victims.