WASHINGTON — Allegations of a veiled network of CIA prisons overseas have added another chapter to the story of US detention policies in the post-9/11 age - and resulted in furious reactions from Eastern Europe to Washington's Capitol Hill.
Romania and other ex-Soviet bloc nations have hurriedly denied they know anything about such secret jails, while in the US the CIA and top congressional Republicans want to find out who leaked the story in the first place.
If nothing else, this flurry of activity serves to keep the words "detention" and "America" linked in news reports around the world. In the US, the government faces the prospect of an internal investigation only weeks after vice presidential staffer I. Lewis Libby was indicted in another leak case. "When you get into investigations around here, where does it end?" asked Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi on Tuesday.
On Nov. 3, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had set up a covert network of prisons overseas to hold high-value terrorism suspects. At times the web contained as many as eight sites, said the Post - some of them in now- democratic East European countries.
The news story did not name the countries in question. The nongovernment organization Human Rights Watch, however, issued a statement last week saying that it had information that CIA airplanes traveling from Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 made direct flights to remote airfields in Romania and Poland.
For instance, a Boeing 737 that the CIA had previously used for prisoner transport - registration number N313P - flew from Kabul to Poland's Szczytno-Szymany airport on Sept. 22, 2003, Human Rights Watch said. Polish intelligence maintains a large installation near that location.
The N313P plane landed at Mihail Kogalniceanu military airfield in Romania the next day, said Human Rights Watch. The plane then went on to Morocco, and ultimately Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
From the US point of view, the most important legal aspect of the network itself may not be the existence of the prison, but the conduct of the jailers inside them.
Its legality "depends on what happens in the prison camps," says Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Any nation hosting the prison, however, may at least risk domestic political problems. Romanian President Traian Basescu said Tuesday that his country had received no request from the US to site a secret CIA prison on its territory. Slovakia has also denied involvement.
The Council of Europe, whose membership includes all nations of the continent except Belarus, has said it will investigate the alleged prisons, with an eye to debating the issue at its next meeting, scheduled for Bucharest, Romania, on Nov. 25.
On the question of who leaked the story, the US Justice Department will undertake a preliminary inquiry, per an official request from the CIA. It's at least possible that this inquiry could grow into a full-scale investigation, similar to that which has ensnared Mr. Libby.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calibrating how far to push leak investigations - and how much damage the White House has already sustained because of them.
In a joint letter to the House and Senate intelligence committees, Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate majority leader Bill Frist called the leak an "egregious disclosure" that will imperil efforts to protect the American people.
They asked the committees to conduct a probe.
This call for a rare bicameral investigation came as a surprise to the GOP chairmen of the intelligence panels, as well as to the Democratic leadership.
"This is only a play to the press; that's all this is.... They're trying to change the direction of what's going on here a little bit," said Democratic leader Harry Reid, after meeting with the Democratic Caucus on Tuesday.