WASHINGTON—At least 39 people from a half-dozen countries have been held in secret U.S. detention centers worldwide for three or more years, and their fates remain unknown, six human-rights groups say in a report to be released Thursday.
Human rights advocates said that the document, which they called the most comprehensive account yet of so-called "ghost detainees," raises new alarms about the Bush administration's practice of secretly detaining suspected terrorists without any legal proceedings.
In five instances, the report says, U.S. authorities detained the wives or young children of suspects held in secret prisons. And in four instances, terrorism suspects in U.S. custody may have been transferred to Libya, once a major adversary of Washington.
"It should be a sobering alarm bell that rattles us all out of our collective slumber," said Curt Goering, a top official at Amnesty International, which helped prepare the report.
A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, suggested that there were inaccuracies in the report but wasn't specific.
"There's a lot of myth outside government when it comes to the CIA and the fight against terror," he said. "The plain truth is that we act in strict accord with American law, and that our counterterror initiatives—which are subject to careful review and oversight—have been very effective in disrupting plots and saving lives."
President Bush publicly acknowledged last September that terrorism suspects had been held in clandestine prisons, and he defended the practice and CIA interrogation methods as legal.
Bush announced that 14 "high value detainees," including the alleged architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had been transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he said "there are now no terrorists in the CIA (detention) program." He reserved the right to detain top terrorists secretly in the future.
Suspicions that the program was still active appeared to be confirmed in late April, when a 15th alleged senior al-Qaida operative, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, was sent to Guantanamo after being held secretly for months. Now it appears that the secret CIA program is more extensive than the administration has acknowledged.
The new report is based on public documents and interviews with government officials and witnesses, including Marwan Jabour, a Palestinian who was held in secret U.S. detention for two years and released last July.
It describes some detainees already known from news reports or government documents as well as five who hadn't been reported on before: four Libyans and a Somali.
"There may well be more that nobody knows about," Goering said.
Amnesty International USA, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic said they planned to file a federal lawsuit Thursday to force the disclosure of information about secret detainees.
The other groups involved in compiling the report, titled "Off the Record," are Human Rights Watch; Reprieve, based in London; and Cageprisoners, whose chief spokesman, Moazzam Begg, is a former Guantanamo detainee.
The report comes at a difficult time for Bush's war-on-terrorism policies.
Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee said the CIA's secret detention program should be ended unless the administration demonstrated that its value in fighting terrorism outweighed the damage done to America's global image.
On Monday, two judges at Guantanamo blocked the administration's planned military commissions to try detainees accused of war crimes.
The authors of "Off the Record" acknowledge that all 39 detainees may not still be in U.S. custody, and some may have been transferred to the control of other countries. One such country is Libya, which now plays a bigger role in U.S. counterterrorism operations than was previously known.
The report cites four cases in which terrorism suspects in U.S. custody may have been transferred to Libya. One of them is Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, whose allegations that Iraq advised al-Qaida on developing weapons of mass destruction—since recanted—formed part of the U.S. case for invading Iraq.
ON THE WEB
The report is available online at http://hrw.org/backgrounder/usa/ct0607