How Much Has Really Changed at America's 'Black Prison'?

President Barack Obama may have outlawed torture, but in a secret prison at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, prisoners continue to languish in cells the size of closets and be subjected to aggressive sleep deprivation.

According to a new report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, shockingly little has changed in the way the United States treats its detainees in Afghanistan, particularly at its infamous "Tor Prison" -- or "Black Prison" -- at Bagram. Despite repeated complaints of sleep deprivation at the base, the practice remains in place. Just as the American war in Afghanistan grinds on, so does rough treatment of its prisoners.

The reality of life at Bagram stands in stark contrast to the principles outlined at the outset of the Obama administration. "The message we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly; we are going to do so effectively; and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals," Obama said in outlawing harsh interrogation methods in January, 2009.

While the worst abuses of the Bush era have been curtailed, the differences between Obama and his predecessor are ones of degree, not kind. "There was a camera on my face and I think they were watching it all the time because whenever I closed my eyes, they would come very fast and knock very hard and shout at me," a young man who had been taken to the Tor jail told AAN. Meanwhile, the air conditioner ran incessantly. "They switched the air conditioning on and would leave it on for hours and hours; outside it was cold and I was shivering, freezing; my legs were shaking and I couldn't keep my teeth still." The jail in which he was held was so small that he was never able to stretch out his legs.

Four and a half years after the putative closure of the CIA's network of black site prisons, the facility under American control at Bagram bears an eerie resemblance to the illegal jails of yore. That, of course, is an idea that American flacks vigorously dispute. "There simply is no, as you put it, ‘black site,'" DOD spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told the AAN report's author, Kate Clark. "Rumours and myth-making to the contrary simply do not withstand intellectual rigor. To be sure, we have a number of locations which are classified for obvious security reasons, for transiting and screening (which, as you know, is recognized and specifically mentioned by [the] Geneva [Conventions]), but they are not undisclosed or ‘secret.'"

The U.S. government's reasoning, then, argues that the Tor prison fails to qualify as a so-called black site because the ICRC and the Afghan government are aware of its existence. Nominally, the Afghan government should also be in control of the facility. In March of this year, the United States and Afghanistan reached an agreement over control of detention facilities at Bagram to the Afghan government. Nonetheless, the exact involvement of the United States in detainee operations at Bagram remains hazy at best. According to the AAN, the United States retains the ability to conduct interrogations at Bagram, and prisoners describe an environment in which U.S. guards continue to oversee the jails, despite the formal handover of control. All in all, the portrait that emerges of operations at Bagram is one of gradual change, marked not by a drastic break with the past but by a slow evolution in which yesterday's policies are carried over into the present day under the mantle of change.

Not long ago, the facility at Bagram fit Breasseale's definition of undisclosed and secret, qualifying clearly as a black site. Until the New York Times revealed the prison's existence in November, 2009, Tor functioned as yet another island in the archipelago of American terror prisons. Run by the Joint Special Operations Command and not the CIA, the prison escaped Obama's order to shut clandestine prisons, a directive that only applied to the spy agency. But human rights activists felt the prison violated the spirit of the administration's detainee policy and subsequently blasted the White House for allowing the prison to continue operating.  "Holding people in what appears to be incommunicado detention runs against the grain of the administration's commitment to greater transparency, accountability, and respect for the dignity of Afghans," Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights researcher at the Open Society Institute, told the Times.

In short, waterboarding and torture is out, sleep deprivation is in, and the Afghan government is now in nominal control of its countries jails, while U.S. guards hover in the background.

How much has really changed is very much up for debate.



How Much Does it Cost for the Pope to Meet the Poor?

Today Pope Francis paid a visit to one of Brazil's notorious favelas, the slums that house more than 20 percent of Brazil's population. Walking amongst the shanty town -- an area so dangerous it's been dubbed Rio's Gaza Strip, Francis seemed at home, telling residents not to give up hope, and doling out kisses to the multiple babies passed his way for a Pope's blessing. It's the kind of ministry -- surrounded by the poor and the marginalized -- that Francis seems to have sought out his whole career. The so-called "Slum Pope" was known for making regular jaunts into similar neighborhoods in Argentina, washing and kissing the feet of drug users there -- but he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio then.

As Pope, Francis has worked hard to make sure he still gets regular up-close and personal contact with the faithful. He's been something of a one-man wrecking ball when it comes to some of the more excessive trappings of the papacy, and his humility has won him legions of adoring fans  -- many of whom turned up in the streets of Rio this week to swarm his famously non-bulletproof, open-topped car and stop traffic, causing security officers to begin shoving them out of the way.

Which raises the question: now that Francis is no longer a relatively-obscure Argentine Cardinal, but the Bishop of Rome, should he still be pursuing this kind of hands-on evangelizing when it may be coming at a cost to the very people he's hoping to serve?

Consider the resources that went into providing security for the protection-averse Francis (Brazilian authorities tried to pressure him to return to the bulletproof car, but to no avail): Brazil mobilized 14,000 troops, according to the Financial Times, to ensure no harm came to the Pope during his visit, as well as more than 7,000 police.  The Rio newspaper O Globo said in May that security for the visit would cost 118 million reals, or over $52 million dollars. Estimates for the overall cost of the trip and the weeklong youth festival range from $145 million to $159 million, according to AP.

The protests that recently swept across Brazil were in part driven by concerns about excessive, corrupt government spending on public events, like the World Cup, and Francis's visit, too, has drawn its (much smaller) share of protesters, who were promptly shut down with tear gas and water cannons. (Even these protesters, however, wanted to be clear that their frustrations were aimed at the government -- not Francis himself.)

The favela Francis visited today, known as Varginha, was the beneficiary of some improvements ahead of the Pope's arrival: sidewalks were paved, overgrown trees pared back and trash was removed. More significantly, the electrical system along the road Francis will walk on while there is being replaced. These are good things, as they go, and point to what a little bit of attention from a person of importance can do for typically marginalized areas. But they're also cosmetic. One resident pointed out to Time magazine a particularly ludicrous example of the kind of spending to gussy up the place that will leave no lasting benefits for residents once Francis is gone:

"Pointing to a hastily planted vegetable garden that, in honor of Francis' arrival, was constructed over a former garbage dump, Fernando Soares, an activist and Manguinhos resident, scoffs. "Yes, it's pretty, but no one can eat the things grown there because the soil underneath is toxic. And wouldn't it be better to have spent the time and money on things like sanitation and health care?"

There are of course upsides to Francis's no-barriers style that can't be accounted for just by looking at the numbers, as this touching quote from the Los Angeles Times illustrates:

"No one of any importance whatsoever has ever come to our community before, and definitely not anyone from another country," said Jose da Costa Oliveira, a 67-year-old carpenter... "And now we have the pope."

And it wasn't the Pope's decision to beef up his security team with enough troops at the ready to invade a small country. He's chilled, his spokesman says:

"We are going with much serenity," said Rev. Federico Lombardi before the trip, according to AP. Lombardi also told reporters that "the pope wants direct contact with the people," not "a militarization of the situation."

In embracing as much contact as possible between himself and the faithful, and maintaining a sense of humility, Francis is not just acting on his own behalf: he's also setting standards of behavior for the rest of the church.When he carries his own suitcases, or drives around in a Ford Focus these choices are nothing but admirable, as is his dedication to the lowliest.  But now that he's Pope, governments will also take matters of Francis' comfort and security perhaps to another level that he himself would have them do -- and that takes resources. It's not an easy balance to strike.