Unexplained Past, Unclear Future: Obama, Poland, and the CIA Black Site

President Obama's first official visit to Poland has been presented as a celebration of the close strategic relationship between Washington and one of its most valuable allies in Central Europe.

But the health of that important relationship faces a cancerous threat—the corrupting failure by both sides to give a full account what happened in 2002 to 2003, when the CIA was allowed to operate a “black site” on Polish soil to secretly hold, and allegedly abuse, terrorist suspects.

Just as the United States struggles with the issue of accountability for the use of illegal torture during the Bush-era “war against terror,” so Poland has not faced up to its cooperation with the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program.

Allowing torture at the CIA black site on its territory, and holding detainees incommunicado were serious violations of the Polish Constitution and international human rights treaties.

When reports first emerged about Poland hosting the CIA prison in November 2005, public opinion and the serious media treated this accusation as a conspiracy theory. The U.S. authorities felt quite happy with that—while Poland was happy to supply its troops to the effort in Afghanistan.

But then what Dick Marty, an eminent European parliamentarian, has called the “dynamics of truth” started to work. US internal reports provided further evidence of the existence of the rendition program; European legislators and US and European journalists launched investigations; human rights groups started to put pressure on the authorities. Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, could not ignore the problem any longer, and in 2008 he ordered an investigation into the alleged existence of CIA prisons in Poland.

Since then things have changed dramatically. Freedom of information disclosures provided data on CIA flights into and from Poland.  Local lawyers began to represent detainees who had been abused at the Polish site, and joined the investigation. Even Polish public opinion changed. The CIA prisons’ affair is now an important issue for many Polish intellectuals and in the media.

If the Polish investigation ends with an indictment, this may have dramatic political consequences. Charges may be brought not only against intelligence officers who had collaborated with the CIA, but also against high state officials who either knew about the black site or at least should have known what was happening in their country. However, there is one substantial obstacle to the investigation—the lack of any cooperation from the US authorities.

President Obama may have political reasons not to fully explain the CIA rendition program to his domestic audience.

But the Polish government cannot think in this way. Its interests are completely different: as a member of the Council of Europe and of the EU, and faithful to the Polish Constitution, Warsaw's role is to protect human rights. Any serious allegations of torture on Polish territory must lead to a comprehensive and transparent investigation. Irrespective of potential US pressure, Poland is duty-bound to explain the matter fully and push for accountability.

Poland should also remember that it does not live in a vacuum. International organizations, media, and NGOs will not forget this issue. They will ask questions, dig into new documents and sources. Insiders will blow the whistle sooner or later. Poland will be holding the Presidency in the EU for the second half of this year. It may become a real success, but the unexplained CIA past may cast a shadow on it. Poland is eager to promote human rights in the Maghreb countries. But a dirty domestic record may decrease credibility of such action.

The Polish investigation is not only a domestic matter. The US public should be equally interested in it. If the US wants to be a credible partner for other states it should help them in clarifying past abuses by the CIA.

If the U.S. government remains silent on this matter, it takes a lot of risks. Public opinion in former communist countries is especially sensitive on having a new “big brother” ally, which gives orders, violates domestic law, abuses territorial sovereignty and in the end is not accountable.

The U.S. and Poland may work effectively together in a future. But Poland should consistently remind Uncle Sam the lessons that were taught back in 1989—lessons about the importance of the constitution, and human rights. Poland should stress that it takes these issues seriously, even if this were to result in the former pupil in this area of human rights being more respectful of the rule of law than its supposed master.

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