A pair of front-page stories from the Washington Post and the New York Times allege detainee abuse at a “black jail” in the Bagram prison complex in Afghanistan. The prisoners interviewed in the Times piece do not go further than sleep deprivation, while acknowledging that detainees at the black jail do not have access to the International Red Cross and that this jail, run by Special Operations forces in the Defense Department, stands outside the ban on secret prisons run by the CIA, decreed through executive order by the President in January. However, the Post report contains a larger category of abuses:

Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban.

The accounts could not be independently substantiated. But in successive, on-the-record interviews, the teenagers presented a detailed, consistent portrait suggesting that the abusive treatment of suspected insurgents has in some cases continued under the Obama administration, despite steps that President Obama has said would put an end to the harsh interrogation practices authorized by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The two teenagers — Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 — said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother.

Other prisoners interviewed by the Post did not describe beatings at the black jail at Bagram. The Times article referenced a similar black jail site at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, though it gave no details.

Between the two stories, you can piece together a few things:

• The black jails exist as interrogation centers in DoD prisons, outside of ICRC oversight.
• Different methods are used on different prisoners, some subjected to solitary confinement and sleep deprivation, with these two others in the Post story alleging beatings. A detainee interviewed in the Times said, “They beat up other people in the black jail, but not me. But the problem was that they didn’t let me sleep.”
• Clearly many Afghans are being detained at Bagram without charges, and held for months even after interrogation sessions end.
• The policy changed sometime in August, and the ICRC now gets the names of everyone detained within two weeks of their capture, though no face-to-face contact. Also, time in the black jail is apparently limited to two weeks.
• In addition, a new detention facility will house all Bagram prisoners by year’s end, and military officials claim that it will have better living conditions, medical facilities, and “access to regular hearings with an appointed U.S. military representative.”
• The Times story looks a little undercooked, and seems to have come out because the Post ran its account, which had more detailed information.

Even if we are skeptical of the two teenagers’ stories from the Post, the existence of black jails that engage in sleep deprivation, corroborated by multiple accounts, violates the Detainee Treatment Act signed by President Bush in 2005, and is banned by the Army Field Manual for interrogations. The lack of access itself, and the secretive nature of the Bagram site, is problematic, as is how the Administration has focused on the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo while engaging in some of the same practices of denial of habeas corpus and indefinite detention in the Afghan site.

Just a week ago, Phillip Carter, who was coordinating Guantanamo and detention policy for the Obama Administration, abruptly resigned, and combined with the resignation of White House counsel Gregory Craig, who reportedly lost some battles on civil liberties, there’s a disquieting picture of people committed to doing the right thing on these policies resigning when information like that described in today’s front-page stories come to light.

In addition, considering that the Obama Adminstration wants NATO members to provide 10,000 more troops for the war effort, in the light of this story those chances may have gone from zero to “you’ve got to be kidding me.” European nations faced a far bigger maelstrom over their role in CIA secret prisons than America did, and these allegations would presumably be enough to cancel out whatever goodwill they felt toward the new President.

The White House has yet to comment on these reports, outside of DoD officials in the stories saying they review all allegations of abuse. Nonchalance in the face of this will have devastating consequences abroad, if not at home, where frankly, torture has become so mainstreamed during the Bush-era debate that I gather it hardly bats an eyelash anymore.

David Dayen

David Dayen