CIA torture: How much did Poland know, and when did it know it?

The US Senate's report on CIA torture has put an uncomfortable glare on Poland's role as host of one of the CIA's secret prisons – and forced a former president to finally admit he knew about the prison, if not the prison's conduct.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
A barbed wire fence surrounds a military area in the forest near Stare Kiejkuty village in northeastern Poland, in January.

For a US audience, the release Tuesday of the Senate's report on CIA torture may have been shocking for the depths of abuse it contained, but there was little doubt that the CIA had used extreme methods to interrogate suspected terrorists. The question was always a matter of what degree of methods were used.

But in Poland, the Senate report has turned a glaring light on a truth the country's leaders have long denied: that Poland was host to one of the secret prisons in which the CIA allegedly tortured US terrorism suspects. Now, human rights activists are hoping that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report puts pressure on Polish authorities to publish their own account, even as the controversy places Poland into uncertain territory, both for its own identity as a modern nation and for its relations with the US.

The Senate report does not directly mention Poland as one of the nations hosting secret CIA prisons held around the globe. 

But many say that by cross-referencing details such as the names of detainees and the dates they were transferred with information already made public, it is clear that what the report calls “detention site blue” is the Stare Kiejkuty prison, a remote villa in northeast Poland where Al Qaeda suspects were allegedly interrogated.

Former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski confirmed as much Wednesday, ending years of denials from him and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller that the prison existed. Mr. Kwaśniewski told Radio TOK FM in Warsaw that Poland agreed to find some "peaceful place" where the Americans could conduct activity. He also said that the government did not authorize torture on the site, and pressed the US to end the practice when Polish officials found out.

He also denied that Poland received $15 million from the CIA to host the prison, a claim made in January of this year by The Washington Post, citing former agency officials talking on the condition of anonymity.

Former Solidarity trade union leader Józef Pinior, now a Polish senator, says that the decision to allow the prison "was against the Polish constitution, international law, and against values that we fought for in the Solidarity movement for so many years."

"Kwaśniewski and Miller should finally bear responsibility for their decision," Mr. Pinior says. "It is really hard to believe that the most important people in the country at that time didn't really know what was happening at this prison."

The report comes amid resurgent Polish-American ties, as Poland has grown increasingly concerned over Russia during the Ukraine crisis and the Russian annexation of Crimea. In fact, the controversy in Poland over the Senate report stems in large part from the close relations between the two countries, particularly between their intelligence agencies, says Adam Bodnar, a human rights lawyer and the vice-president of the board of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw.

“Americans didn't trust Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Thailand's authorities very much, that's why they decided to establish a prison in Poland. Poland was seen as a safe place. Americans believed that there was no risk of duplicity from the Polish authorities,” says Mr. Bodnar. “Polish authorities agreed to this prison, because they were convinced that nobody would have never known about it."

That's what makes the report's revelations so potentially damaging to the Polish government – as the report itself notes. "On page 75 of the Senate's report,” Bodnar says, "we can read how Polish authorities were surprised and outraged by the fact that information about prisons became public."

Poland’s Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said Tuesday that the report would not lead to a worsening of the country's relations with the US.

Many Poles hope that the report will energize the country's own investigation into the CIA prison. Polish prosecutors opened an investigation in 2008 but it has languished in the years since.

The classified investigation was originally scheduled to be published in October this year, but it has since been pushed back to February. It has also seen its investigator changed in 2012, from Warsaw’s state prosecutor to the prosecutor in Krakow, with no reason given. Bodnar speculated that the switch was made to buy more time.

Though it remains shrouded in mystery, the Polish investigation has resulted in at least one person being charged. In January, prosecutors confirmed that they brought charges against an unnamed person in connection with the CIA prison. Polish media reports said that person may be Zbigniew Siemiątkowski, the former head of the Polish secret service, who as early as 2012 had been rumored to have been the target of such charges.

The government is also under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in July that Poland violated the rights of two terrorism suspects by transferring them to the “black site.” The Polish government appealed the ruling in October.

"Polish people are outraged," says Pinior. "This report was a shock for many. We didn't fight for a country where people could be tortured."

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