Vice Admiral Robert Harward, from his Navy biography

Yesterday, Vice Admiral Robert Harward, in a conference call with bloggers, responded to a question from Spencer Ackerman about the issue of secret prisons in Afghanistan. Harward has served under General Stanley McChrystal, the current commander of US forces in Afghanistan, for many years and his current position is "command, control, oversight, and responsibility for U.S. detention and correction operations in Afghanistan". Here is Ackerman’s report on Harward’s response:

Harward said unequivocally that “all detainees under my command have access to the International [Committee of the] Red Cross.” The admiral suggested that The Times may have misconstrued “field detention sites” where detainees are initially in-processed for “a very short period” before transfer to detention facilities like the Parwan facility at Bagram, since the locations are undisclosed for operational security reasons.

“There are no black-jail secret prisons,” Harward said. “We do have field detention sites we do not disclose, but they’re held there for very short periods, and then they’re moved — if they’re determined to need additional internment, they’re moved to the detention facility at Parwan or released.”

Taken at face value, Harward’s response would suggest that the US has taken positive actions to put the bad history of secret detention sites behind us. However, given Harward’s personal role in that dark history, closer scrutiny of his response is warranted. Going back to the Harward biography linked above, we see that Harward now has command of Joint Task Force 435, while he most recently served in Joint Task Force 714. This Ackerman article is one of the very few public discussions of both of these task forces and also serves to provide more background on Harward’s association with McChyrstal:

More directly, McRaven and Harward share a professional fraternity with McChrystal. Before McRaven took over JSOC — an entity that operates almost entirely in secret — McChrystal ran it for five years, supervising stealthy teams in Afghanistan and Iraq that tracked down and killed senior terrorists like al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One of McChrystal’s deputies during that period was Harward, and the bonds between the officers remain strong. “General McChrystal and Vice Admirals McRaven and Harward have established relationships through the special operations community,” said McChrystal’s spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis.


As a result, McChrystal is turning to McRaven and Harward for critical tasks in Afghanistan. McRaven runs a secretive detachment of Special Forces known as Task Force 714 — once commanded by McChrystal himself — that the NSC staffer described as “direct-action” units conducting “high-intensity hits.” In an email, Sholtis said that because Task Force 714 was a “special ops organization” he “can’t go into much detail on authorities, etc.” But the NSC staffer — who called McRaven “McChrystal Squared” — said Task Force 714 was organized into “small groups of Rangers going wherever the hell they want to go” in Afghanistan and operating under legal authority granted at the end of the Bush administration that President Obama has not revoked.

Given McChrystal’s history with Camp Nama, it is not too big a stretch to presume that the secret prison operations also have been conducted under Task Force 714 along with the operations Ackerman described. Since Harward now commands Task Force 435, the "under my command" part of Harward’s response becomes interesting. Are only the publicly acknowledged prisons under Harward’s command in JTF 435, with secret ones still under McRaven’s ("McChrystal Squared") control in JTF 714? It would be very informative to hear McRaven’s response to the same question posed to Harward.

The latter part of Harward’s response is equally troubling. He suggests that this article in the New York Times discussing a secret prison in Afghanistan has conflated temporary field holding facilities with secret detention sites. Although the Times article is indeed murky on this issue, a report released this week by the UN (see this press release for links to the full report and its executive summary) provides extensive documentation for multiple secret detention sites in Afghanistan and clearly distinguishes temporary holding sites from them:

Outside of the specific “high-value detainee” programme, most detainees were held in a variety of prisons in Afghanistan. Three of these are well-known: a secret prison within Bagram airbase, reportedly identified as “The Hangar” ; and two secret prisons near Kabul, known as the “Dark Prison” and the “Salt Pit.”


The Experts heard allegations about three lesser-known prisons including a prison in the Panjshir valley, north of Kabul, and two other prisons identified as Rissat and Rissat 2, but it was not yet possible to verify these allegations.

The key question now becomes whether the sites documented by the UN are still in operation. Note that the UN report has parsed President Obama’s Executive Order calling for closure of black sites (and closure of Guantanamo) and does not like what was found,while also putting to rest the conflation of temporary sites (CIA in this case, though) with secret prisons:

The Experts welcome these commitments. They believe however that clarification is required as to whether detainees were held in CIA “black sites” in Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere when President Obama took office, and, if so, what happened to the detainees who were held at that time. Also, the Experts are concerned that the Executive Order which instructed the CIA “to close any detention facilities that it currently operates” does not extend to the facilities where the CIA detains individuals on “a short-term transitory basis”. The Order also does not seem to extend to detention facilities operated by the Joint Special Operation Command.

So, the UN working group notes that JSOC operations appear to have been left out of Obama’s executive order purporting to end the use of secret prisons. Everything now hinges on the credibility of Harward’s flat statement "There are no black-jail secret prisons". Such a statement would carry much more credibility if it were accompanied by an admission of those sites which were previously used and documentation that all prisoners held there have been accounted for in shutting the prisons down. For now, the attempt to deflect attention to the temporary holding sites seems to put Harward on shaky ground, leaving open the distinct possibility of secret prisons still in operation, but not directly under his command.

Jim White

Jim White

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