What does Thailand really know about the CIA’s ‘black site’ prisons?

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 12, 2014

Thai officials have denied the existence of secret U.S. detention and interrogation facilities in Thailand, following the highly anticipated release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture in the past decade during the interrogation of terrorist suspects. But there may be some indications that Thailand may knows more than it is ready to admit.

The 525-page, highly redacted report finds that the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were brutal – far worse than previously thought and ineffective in acquiring credible information. Among the 119 detainees, 26 were wrongly detained and 39 were tortured, according to the report. What the Senate Committee report didn’t further reveal were the exact locations of these CIA facilities around the world. Fifty-four countries are suspected to have participated in the CIA rendition program to aid in the capture, detainment, transport and interrogation of terrorist suspects outside the jurisdiction of the United States – among them is Thailand.

However, members of the current Thai military government were quick to deny the accusations:

“A secret prison has not existed here and there are no reports of torture in Thailand. No Thai agencies have carried out such operations,” Prime Minister’s Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana said. “There have never been cases of bringing in these sorts of prisoners. We have never conducted any illegal activities with the US.”

Suwaphan, a former director of the National Intelligence Agency, said he did not see Thailand being mentioned anywhere in the report. “The incidents mentioned in the report took place many years ago … Anyway, I can assure [you] there are no secret prisons or torture in Thailand.” […]

Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda affirmed that no secret prisons had existed in Thailand. “The Army was unaware of any secret prison in Thailand when I served as the Army chief. At that time, I had given assurance that Thailand did not have any secret prisons,” Anupong said.

Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanganetra said he had no information regarding secret prisons or torture of suspected terrorists in Thailand.

Govt denies secret prisons here, tightens security at US Embassy“, The Nation, December 12, 2014

Contrary to Suwaphan’s statement, Thailand is actually mentioned in the report by name (starting at page 301) in the capture of “Hambali”, former leader of the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (which has links Al Qaeda) and the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings. The capture in Ayutthaya in 2003 is being credited to “signals intelligence, a CIA source, and Thai investigative activities”, even though the report now says it was “largely through luck.”

There have been rumors about a detention facility in Thailand since the early 2000s during the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Washington Post was first to report in 2005:

By mid-2002, the CIA had worked out secret black-site deals with two countries, including Thailand and one Eastern European nation, current and former officials said. An estimated $100 million was tucked inside the classified annex of the first supplemental Afghanistan appropriation.

Then the CIA captured its first big detainee, in March 28, 2002. Pakistani forces took Abu Zubaida, al Qaeda’s operations chief, into custody and the CIA whisked him to the new black site in Thailand, which included underground interrogation cells, said several former and current intelligence officials. Six months later, Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh was also captured in Pakistan and flown to Thailand.

CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons“, Washington Post, November 2, 2005

Despite the very few mentions of “Thailand”, the report very often cites “DETENTION SITE GREEN”, which is widely believed to be the CIA black site prison in Thailand. It has been rumored that the location was somewhere either in Udon Thani province, in Sattahip at the Thai Navy base or near Don Muang Airport.

This is where the aforementioned Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was brought to and “placed in isolation on June 18, 2002, and remained in isolation for 47 days, until the CIA began subjecting him to its enhanced interrogation techniques on August 4, 2002” (page 30 of the report), hoping to gain intelligence on an imminent terrorist plot.

The report also indicates (despite the many redactions) that at least a few officials had knowledge about Abu Zubaydah’s detainment at the black site in Thailand, contradicting this week’s official denials. Under the section “Tensions with Host Country Leadership and Media Attention Foreshadow Future Challenges” in the chapter about Abu Zubaydah’s case, it reads:

On April █ 2002, the CIA Station in Country █ attempted to list the number of Country █ officers who,[t]o the best of Station’s knowledge,” had “knowledge of the presence of Abu Zubaydah” in a specific city in Country █. The list included eight individuals, references to “various” personnel █████████████ and the “staff” of ████████████████ and concluded “[d]oubtless many others.” By April █, 2002, a media organization had learned that Abu Zubaydah was in Country █, prompting the CIA to explain to the media organization the “security implications” of revealing the information. The CIA Station in Country █ also expressed concern that press inquiries “would do nothing for our liaison and bilateral relations, possibly diminishing chances that [the ███████████ of Country █] will permit [Abu Zubaydah] to remain in country or that he would accept other [Abu Zubaydah]-like renderees in the future.” In November 2002, after the CIA learned that a major U.S. newspaper knew that Abu Zubaydah was in Country █, senior CIA officials, as well as Vice President Cheney, urged the newspaper not to publish the information. While the U.S. newspaper did not reveal Country █ as the location of Abu Zubaydah, the fact that it had the information, combined with previous media interest, resulted in the decision to close DETENTION SITE GREEN.

“Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program”, United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, published December 9, 2014, page 24 – PDF

That’s at least a strong indicator that the report lists eight individuals (possibly more) who know about the detainee’s presence in the country of “DETENTION SITE GREEN” and highly likely the same country the local officers come from – which is believed to be Thailand in this case.

The “major U.S. newspaper” that was asked not to reveal the information about Abu Zubaydah’s whereabouts is likely the Washington Post, which also wrote that the Thai officials at one point must have become aware of the CIA facility and its operation eventually:

Two locations in this category — in Thailand and on the grounds of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay — were closed in 2003 and 2004, respectively. […]

But after published reports revealed the existence of the site in June 2003, Thai officials insisted the CIA shut it down, and the two terrorists were moved elsewhere, according to former government officials involved in the matter. Work between the two countries on counterterrorism has been lukewarm ever since.

CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons“, Washington Post, November 2, 2005

Both Hambali and Abu Zubaydah, among other former detainees of “DETENTION SITE GREEN”, are currently beingheld at Guantanamo Bay.

The question now is who among the Thai officials knew what at what point? Obviously, the blanket denial by the current military junta is not only to protect themselves from losing face and potential legal and diplomatic repercussions both domestically and from abroad, but even more so since some members of the junta (like then-army chief Gen. Anupong EDIT: he became army chief in 2007) were in charge wof national security back then.

It also highlights the tenure of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra again and his dealings with the United States, Thailand being its oldest ally in the region. Asia Times Online wrote in 2008:

Months before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US and Thailand established the Counterterrorism Intelligence Center (CTIC), a secretive unit presciently which joined the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Thai intelligence officials to gather information about regional terror groups. […]

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra’s democratically elected government paved the way for the CIA’s secret prison’s establishment, first by refusing to ratify the previous Democrat Party-led administration’s decision to sign onto the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and second by granting a legal exemption and agreement not to extradite any US citizens who violated the Rome statute on Thai soil to an ICC signatory third country.

His government also, apparently on the US’s urging, introduced terrorism-related charges into Thai criminal law. In quid pro quo fashion, Washington rewarded Bangkok in 2003 with the bilateral promise to negotiate a free trade agreement and upgraded Thailand to major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, which allows the Thai military to procure, sometimes at friendship prices, sensitive military technologies.

Yet the public revelations about CIA-led torture of terror suspects brought to Thailand cast a harsh new light on that special bilateral relationship and raises even harder questions about Thaksin’s motivations for allowing the US to violate Thai sovereignty.

US and Thailand: Allies in torture“, Asia Times Online, January 25, 2008

It has also been argued that the participation of Thaksin’s government in the “war on terror” indirectly led to his campaign in the infamous “war on drugs” that resulted in some 2,800 possible extrajudicial killings and also horribly mishandled the situation in the Deep South, which sparked an Islamic separatist insurgency that still lasts until today.

Back in the present, questions remain about Thailand’s role in harboring the CIA’s detainment facilities and knowledge about the torture of terrorist suspects inside the black site prison, what is now widely billed elsewhere as “America’s shame”. The current military government’s denial is in stark contradiction to the US Senate report. It does not raise confidence that anyone in Thailand will come clean about it – let alone be transparent – and it could grow into yet another dark stain on Thailand’s military junta.