The CIA has operated a secret prison system where more than 100 terror suspects have been locked up since Sept. 11.
The so-called "black sites" -- which were so covert that only a handful of government officials even knew about them until today -- operated over the past four years in eight different countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several Eastern European states, according to a story first reported today in The Washington Post.
Former officials say that of the 100 suspected terrorists sent into this secret prison system, 30 are considered major al Qaeda operatives.
Sources say some of the prisoners include Abu Zabaida, who was the head of Osama bin Laden's operations network, and Ramzi Binalshibh, a key planner in the 9/11 attacks. Both men were captured in Pakistan and taken to a black site in Thailand, then later moved to another location.
What Happens in Secret Prisons?
What troubles many in the international community is the lack of oversight of interrogation techniques used at these secret lockups.
A recent Amnesty International report tells of two Yemeni prisoners held in a secret U.S. detention facility who say they were kept in an underground cell with Western music piped in 24 hours a day for well over a year, and interrogated daily by U.S. guards who were fully covered "like ninjas."
"The one overriding reason for such a facility is to torture those in detention," said Mark Garlasco of Human Rights Watch. "So that they are away from any prying eyes from the public and from the media."
The White House today denied that the CIA engages in torture.
"While we have to do what is necessary to defend the country against terrorist attacks, the president has been very clear that we're going to do that in a way that is consistent with our values," said National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
The CIA had no comment today, but the Post's report comes amid intense debate over the treatment of detainees and the legal and ethical issues involved in holding terror suspects without charges. There is debate over the issue within the CIA itself. A former intelligence official said one reason this story was likely leaked to the press is because some CIA officers don't believe the program is sustainable and could harm the United States' reputation.