WARSAW, Poland — To describe the tiny town of Szymany as an unlikely focus of the world’s attention is an understatement. About 95 miles north of the Polish capital of Warsaw, it is little more than a crossroads with a few shops and houses along the main road in a region covered with dense woods.
Enter the CIA, and thus the world’s attention.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the American intelligence agency began using an airfield outside Szymany for transiting terrorist suspects to secret CIA prisons and to countries known to employ torture, according to investigations by an assortment of European governmental commissions and journalists .
Investigators also suspect that Poland, part of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld termed “New Europe,” supportive of the Iraq war and U.S. counterterrorism efforts, has allowed the CIA to use Stare Kiejkuty, a Polish intelligence center that’s a 15-minute drive from the Szymany airport, as a detention center for terrorist suspects.
If the allegations are true ― Polish officials deny them; American officials won’t comment ― Szymany and Stare Kiejkuty represent just two of the ways Poland and the United States have worked together in the post-9/11 world:
- 900 Polish troops, one of the largest non-U.S. contingents in the “coalition of the willing” fighting in Iraq, are slated to remain at least through 2007; 24 Polish soldiers and journalists have been killed in Iraq.
- Poland has become one of the largest recipients of U.S. military assistance. In the three years before 9/11, it received just over $33 million in U.S. military training and assistance. In the three years after, the total was nearly tenfold: more than $300 million, mostly in Coalition Support Funds as reimbursement for expenses incurred by Polish forces in Iraq, according to ICIJ’s database of military training and assistance.
- Poland spent close to $500,000 annually influencing American public opinion in the three years after 9/11 through lobbying, public relations, and trade promotion activities regulated and disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
- With Polish support, the U.S. is pressing to place an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe ― with radar based in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles based in Poland ― in the event Iran develops missiles and fires them at the U.S. or Europe.
Cooperation has come at a price. The Polish government is under pressure domestically for its support of an unpopular war in Iraq and for its alleged involvement in the CIA’s trafficking of terrorist suspects. Six out of 10 Poles opposed the proposed American missile sites, according to an August 2006 poll. Diplomatic tangles abound. To Poland’s east, U.S. anti-missile plans have drawn increasingly harsh responses from Russia; Poland, once a Communist country under Moscow’s influence, has gained membership in NATO and the European Union with U.S. support. To Poland’s west, the country’s close relations with the U.S. have led to strains with “Old Europe,” including France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq war from the start.
Council of Europe probe
European governmental commissions, including one appointed by the Council of Europe, have compiled substantial circumstantial evidence that CIA-chartered planes landed at Szymany, possibly to offload some passengers and take on others, and departed shortly after. The planes have been traced to or from such places as Kabul, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, site of the controversial U.S. military prison.
Some of the “ghost detainees” who might have been on those flights and who were later released would recount graphic tales of torture at the hands of U.S. and foreign interrogators. After spending months or even years not knowing where they were or why they were being held, one was suddenly abandoned on an empty road while others were handed over to another government’s intelligence services without any explanation. Some remain in custody to this day with no legal charges having ever been filed.
Almost five years to the day after the 2001 attacks, President Bush publicly confirmed that the CIA had been operating a system of secret prisons around the world, but he said that those prisons were now empty, all detainees having been transferred to Guantánamo Bay. The U.S. government refuses to disclose the locations of the secret prisons that were part of the CIA’s program.
The former head of Polish intelligence has denied there was a secret prison at Stare Kiejkuty (a secretive complex hidden in the woods on a lake behind barbed wire, imposing guard towers, and surveillance cameras), or anywhere else in Poland, but he acknowledged to the British newspaper The Guardian that “CIA planes landed in Poland. … In 2003 this cooperation was very intense.”
Secrecy surrounds airfield
Ask any people around Szymany what they ever heard or saw happening at the airfield, and you’ll likely receive a universal response: “I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
The guard at the airfield told two ICIJ reporters that he couldn’t talk about it but that other guards routinely gossiped about such allegations. A visit to the airfield’s management company a few miles north in the town of Szczytno yielded the same response. Farther north, at the nearest barracks of the Polish border guards in the town of Kętrzyn near the Russian border ― a unit rumored to be present at the airfield during various CIA landings ― the reporters were told that, yes, Polish border guards are in fact required to inspect all foreign aircraft that land in Poland. But specific questions about the allegations of CIA planes and foreign prisoners were met with rueful laughter, followed by silence.
One person who was willing to talk about what he saw is Jaroslaw Jurczenko, a former manager of the airfield. In December 2002, Jurczenko and his staff at the airfield were told to stay inside their building while a Gulfstream jet landed in the corner of the airfield at night.
Polish border guards were present, Jurczenko told ICIJ in 2006, and from what little he and his colleagues could see, a single car from the Stare Kiejkuty intelligence center pulled up to the plane and idled there for a few minutes. A man in civilian clothes paid for the plane’s landing fees in cash but in an amount much higher than what was due, no explanation given.
ICIJ reporter Pawel Smolenski contributed to this report.