August 4, 2005

“70,000 prisoners in secret US prisons worldwide”

Posted in Amnesty International, Der Standard, Detention, Media, War on Terror, Yemen at 4:17 pm by billdawson

[editor’s note: this post was “pasted” in — it appeared originally at the old Dawson’s Danube site, which is archived here.]
Standard70000That is the translated headline of an article that appeared yesterday (03. August 2005) at the Austrian daily newspaper, Der Standard’s web site: “70.000 Gefangene in geheimen US-Gefängnissen weltweit”. The article then begins with this paragraph:

Die USA halten laut einem Bericht der Menschenrechtsorganisation amnesty international (ai) etwa 70.000 Menschen in geheimen Gefängnissen gefangen. Die Gefängnisse befänden sich außerhalb der USA an unbekannten Orten. According to a report from the human rights organization amnesty international, the USA holds 70,000 people in secret prisons. The prisons are located outside the USA in undisclosed locations.

This is a gross (and transparently deliberate) mischaracterization of the facts on many levels. I — probably unlike the vast majority of Austrians who happened to come across the article — decided to dig a bit to figure out where they got this information. First of all, the real purpose of the article is to discuss a press release today from Amnesty International titled “USA/ Jordan/ Yemen: Secret detention centres”. That press release and the longer report that it refers to tell the stories of Salah Nasser Salim ‘Ali and Muhammad Faraj Ahmed Bashmilah, two men who were apparently sent by the US to secret prisons in other countries. Neither the press release nor the longer report contains any reference to “70,000”.

After discovering that fact, I was tempted to just label this an outright fabrication. But I knew that there must be some document somewhere that contains this figure of “70,000”, so I started looking around.


Indeed, a May 2005 report from Amnesty titled “Guantánamo and beyond: The continuing pursuit of unchecked executive power” contains the long table shown here to the left. Note that the final value in the table is 70,000 and that it refers to an estimate of the total count of detainees held during the “war on terror” (which, we should remember, has been underway for at least three and one-half years.) Der Standard’s (or the Austrian Press Agency’s) use of this figure is therefore ludicrous for many reasons:

  • By headlining the figure, they are suggesting that this is new information. In fact, the information was mentioned by Amnesty International three months ago in a much-discussed report.
  • In the first paragraph, by mentioning that the figure of 70,000 is “according to a report from … amnesty international”, they are deliberately and misleadingly suggesting that the figure is from the same report that they then go on to discuss in the rest of the short article. In fact, the figure does not appear anywhere in the 04. August 2005 Amnesty press release or report. But no reader could be blamed for concluding that Amnesty has just now discovered that 70,000 prisoners are being held by the US in secret prisons worldwide.
  • Even if the article made clear that the “70,000” is old and from a different report, it would still be a complete mischaracterization of Amnesty’s own use of that figure. As noted above, the Amnesty table of detainee figures makes it clear that the “70,000” is a total count of all detainees held at any time throughout the War on Terror. The Der Standard article uses the present tense (halten … gefangen / “hold prisoner”). It would be too forgiving to say that this merely implies that the U.S. currently holds 70,000. The truth is, it asserts that this is the current total.
  • Even if the Der Standard article made it clear that the figure of “70,000” refers to a total head count throughout the War on Terror, it would (if I may repeat myself) still be a complete mischaracterization of Amnesty’s own use of that figure. The Der Standard article insists that the Amnesty report shows that 70,000 detainees are held in secret prisons. Never mind the fact — noted earlier — that the Amnesty report which they are really reporting on (04. August 2005) does not even contain the figure of 70,000. If we forgive them that oversight and recognize that they really meant to refer to a three-month old Amnesty report, we still must note that Amnesty most certainly does not assert that these 70,000 detainees are/were held in secret prisons. Look closely at the table: the majority of current detainees that they list are at known facilities. The rows of data that refer to what some call “ghost detainees” (or “rendition” detainees) are the rows that begin with “Worldwide…”. They list 40 detainees at CIA facilities, 150 “secret transfers” and an estimate of “several thousand” held by other governments for the USA. By the way, I would argue that the latter figure does not represent “secret facilities” — but even if I allow that, the total is “several thousand.” Not only does Amnesty not assert that there are 70,000 detainees in secret prisons, they do not even assert that there are 70,000 current detainees in total.

What shall we conclude about Der Standard’s article? Based on my review of the available information, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than that it is an outright lie. And since the lie concerns the United States, the War on Terror, the war in Iraq and the administration of a certain George W. Bush, I can only conclude it is a lie told for political reasons.

By the way, I should mention that the article refers to the Austrian Press Agency (APA) as a source. I could not find the original APA release (they scroll off their web site quite quickly), so I don’t know if it mentions the “70,000” in addition to the real news, which was the new report from Amnesty. For that reason, I checked several other Austrian news web sites (see references below) because they, too, could have made use of the APA release. I was unable to find anything at all at these other Austrian sites as of 12:15 pm today. Recall that Der Standard published their article yesterday.

Finally, you might find this question interesting: where did Amnesty International themselves get the 70,000 figure referred to in their 13. May 2005 report? If you look at the top of the table of figures, you’ll notice a reference to footnote 11. The footnote refers to five different sources but contains no links:


With a little luck, I found them all on the web and I link to each of them below at the end of the “References” section. I’ve read them all, and I can tell you exactly where the 70,000 figure comes from. At the DOD 10 March 2005 briefing, Colonel Pete Champagne, Army Deputy Provost Marshal, says:

I note that some of you in the audience today were also at the hearing. And I’d just like to start off my remarks by just noting that one of the senators today said you need to put this issue in proper context. When you consider the fact that we’ve had about a million servicemen deployed over the last couple of years in the global war on terrorism, and there’s only been about 300 cases of detainee abuse, and we’ve handled over 70,000 detainees, that equates, if you do the math, to less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Of course the department doesn’t condone any incident of abuse, and we’re aggressively pursuing any allegation of abuse.

How ironic that Col. Champagne uses the figure to highlight something positive. Five months later, the figure has landed in a Der Standard headline in the form of a deliberate lie.


The Der Standard article that piqued my interest: “70.000 Gefangene in geheimen US-Gefängnissen weltweit” (03. August 2005).

Amnesty International: “USA/ Jordan/ Yemen: Secret detention centres” (04. August 2005). This is the press release which, I believe, prompted the Der Standard article. The press release then contains a link to the longer report (also dated 04. August 2005) that details the stories of Salah Nasser Salim ‘Ali and Muhammad Faraj Ahmed Bashmilah. Neither the press release nor the longer report contains any reference to “70,000”.

Amnesty International: “Guantánamo and beyond: The continuing pursuit of unchecked executive power” (13. May 2005). This is the report that contains “70,000”. Note that it is three months old, yet Der Standard uses this figure in a headline that suggests it is news.

Other publications referring to the 04. August AI report on their web sites:

Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Amerikaner Unterhalten ‘geheime Gefangenenlager’” (04. August 2005). Like the article in Der Standard, this article discusses the Amnesty International releases dated 04. August 2005. It contains no mention of “70,000” in its title or body.

Other publications whose web sites were checked but which did not contain any stories concerning the 04. August 2005 AI report (as of 12:15 p.m. 04. August): Salzburger Nachrichten, Die Presse, Kleine Zeitung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Note that three of those are Austrian and therefore clients of the APA, which Der Standard cites as a source for their article.

Here are links to the references in footnote 11 of Amnesty International’s 13. May 2005 report:

United States Department of Defense: “Department of Defense Briefing on Detention Operations and Interrogation Techniques” (10. March 2005). Colonel Champagne’s comment — “When you consider the fact that we’ve had about a million servicemen deployed over the last couple of years in the global war on terrorism, and there’s only been about 300 cases of detainee abuse, and we’ve handled over 70,000 detainees,… — could perhaps be the source of Amnesty’s figure of 70,000. Note that the briefing took place five months ago.

Washington Post: “US to expand prison facilities in Iraq” (10. May 2005). The article mentions that there are over 11,000 detainees in Iraq. It does not refer to the detention facilities as “secret.” The ICRC regularly visits facilities in Iraq.

United States Department of Defense: “Detainee Transfer Announced” (26. April 2005). This is the source of the figure of 520 detainees at GTMO.

International Committee of the Red Cross: “Operational Update” (29. March 2005). This is the source of these figures: 300 detainees at Bagram and 250 detainees at Kandahar. The article also mentions an “unknown number” held “outside any legal framework.”

New York Times: “Rule change lets CIA freely send suspects abroad to jails” (06.03.2005 — the article is archived and available for a fee. Perhaps you can find it elsewhere for free on the web if you search on the title.). The article mentions that there are 100 to 150 “rendition” detainees via the CIA, and 60 via the DOD.