- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
How much would U.S spies pay for a secret prison abroad? Apparently, not that much.
According to a blockbuster Washington Post report, in 2003 two CIA agents handed $15 million in cash stashed in two cardboard boxes to the number two man at Poland’s intelligence service. In exchange, they received access to a secluded villa in which they could store and torture captured al-Qaeda operatives, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "The CIA prison in Poland was arguably the most important of all the black sites created by the agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," the Post’s Adam Goldman wrote.
The decision to allow the presence of a CIA black site has been stirring up controversy in Poland for years, but the Post report has added further fuel to the fire, with outraged commentators declaring the report put a price tag on Poland’s past willingness to turn a blind eye to torture on its soil. "For $15 million, the government violated the constitution." Senator Jozef Pinior, who closely monitors the issue, told Foreign Policy. The case has been a thorn in the side for every Polish government since its cooperation with the U.S. intelligence agency was first revealed in 2005. Despite a constant flow of new evidence, Polish politicians from all major parties have denied allegations that elected officials were aware of such detention sites.
Leszek Miller, who was prime minister in 2003 when the site was established, dismissed arguments that he had to have known about the CIA operation that happened under his nose. "To me this is funny, it sounds like a Hollywood screenplay….No PM should ever know about something like this," he said in a television interview, noting that the "secret services’ power lies in the clandestine character of their work." Referring to the money handed over by the CIA, Miller saw no problem: "There would be a problem for Polish authorities if there were some unclear and undisclosed expenses, but if the secret services got some money — super."
Adam Bodnar, a lawyer from the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation, said in an interview with the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza that "if someone who was the prime minister and still aspires to the highest political posts in Poland says that a prime minister in a democratic country shouldn’t know about the activities of the secret services, then the question is whether this person was at all competent to be prime minister in the first place."
The current prime minister, Donald Tusk, also disagreed with Miller. "I hope there were no ambiguous financial transactions that would serve foreign security forces on Polish soil," he said at a press conference Friday. Tusk emphasized that his government would not allow any ally, no matter their size, to implicate Poland in a situation that could jeopardize the country’s reputation.
Marek Rybarczyk, a journalist for the Polish edition of Newsweek, had even harsher words. "In 2003, Poland took a bribe from the Americans for turning a blind eye to the torture of al Qaeda prisoners on its own territory," he wrote on the magazine’s web site. He also described the affair as "trading in torture." The decision to do so, Rybarczyk argued, was especially troubling given Poland’s long-history of serving as a doormat to the imperial powers on its borders. "We are a country that has suffered during the time of its partitions, that has lost its soul, lost millions of victims in world wars, a country that housed Gestapo slaughterhouses and Stalinist dungeons," Rybarczyk wrote. "Poland should shudder at taking money for torture."
Newsweek is conducting a poll alongside Rybarczyk’s article asking whether Poland is a "banana republic that allowed torture on its territory in exchange for bribes and a favorable relationship with the U.S." As of Friday afternoon, 67 percent of respondents to the non-scientific poll had answered "yes."
"Selling human rights for dollars is humiliating for Leszek Miller’s government," Pinior told FP. "It’s a humiliation for Polish democracy that it functions like non-democratic countries."
The Post revelations are currently competing for top billing on the homepages of all major Polish news services with updates from the pro-European protests in neighboring Ukraine. For Pinior, the timing of the revelations are particularly embarrassing for Poland, a country that prides itself on being a model democracy and as an example for its struggling neighbor.
Defenders of the decision to welcome the CIA prison in Poland argue that the country was obligated to do so in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Citing images of the burning World Trade Center towers, journalist Tomasz Wolek told a morning radio program that "it was a battle against terrorism, after all."
Roman Imielski, an editor at the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, said Poland’s long-standing relationship with the United States was another reason why the CIA ended up placing its black site there. U.S. support to Poland’s democratic opposition during the Cold War and its additional aid to the country after the fall of communism created a sense of indebtedness, Imielski argued. That feeling grew after Washington helped Poland gain entrance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999. Poland, in turn, sent troops to aid the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.
Prosecutors have spent the past five years investigating the CIA’s use of torture in Poland, but critics argue that the government purposefully declined to hold anyone accountable and has slow-rolled the inquiry. In December, two of the black site detainees — Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah — sued Poland in the European Court of Human Rights for violating their human rights. Pinior thinks the Post revelations could help the two men win their case — an outcome that would mean potentially stiff financial penalties for the Polish government — and hopes it will spur Poland to move faster on its investigation into the CIA facility.
If Poland gets a hefty bill for the black site, the CIA might perhaps chip in with a few more boxes of cash.