The European Commision is investigating a report in Wednesday’s Washington Post that a secret network of CIA prisons for terror suspects includes sites in Europe.

Citing US and foreign officals, the Post says that that for more than four years, the CIA has run a “covert prison system” with sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan, a small centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba — and “several democracies in Eastern Europe”.

The European sites are said to be ex-Soviet installations. The Post knows which European states are involved, but witheld them at the request of US authorities who fear terrorist reprisals.

If the reports are true, the secret jails would violate European human rights law, a fact that could have serious consequences, according to the Daily Telegraph:

… The justice commissioner, Franco Frattini, made clear that potentially severe legal and political consequences awaited any EU country, or any country seeking EU membership, if it was confirmed that its government had co-operated with the CIA programme.

Mr Frattini said that all member states “are bound” by international legal obligations, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the Convention against Torture. In theory, nations can be suspended from the EU for grave breaches of such fundamental principles.

While a country of the size and standing of Poland is unlikely to be expelled, the dangers are acute for countries trying to join the EU.

So which European country might be involved? The Guardian’s report is representative of the speculation:

Poland and Romania are thought the most likely locations in Europe, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Polish press reports.

Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria have denied involvement. The Czech interior minister, Frantiszek Bublan, said the US had approached Prague to build a camp but the request was turned down.

Bulgaria and Romania are scheduled to join the European Union in 2007 and are compelled to sign up to EU human rights standards. Eight other former Soviet bloc nations, including the Czech Republic and Poland, became members in May 2004.

Eastern European Nato members have been some of Washington’s staunchest allies in the “war on terror” and in Iraq.

The paper also suggests a motive for cooperating with the CIA:

…analysts pointed to the feverish competition among the east Europeans to host new US military bases.

The region’s new Nato members, particularly Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, have been among Washington’s staunchest allies in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, heightening speculation that they would be the likeliest venues for the secret jails. Romania and Bulgaria made military facilities available to the Americans for the Afghan and Iraq wars. The Pentagon is planning to dispatch 5,000 servicemen to a string of new bases in the two countries from next year.

The Independent has a bit more detail, from Human Rights Watch’s investigation into the movements of a Boeing 757 with the tail number N313P, one of the aircraft known to be involved in “extraordinary rendition” flights:

…in September 2003, it flew directly from Kabul to Szymany airport, near the remote Polish town of Szczytno, north of Warsaw, home to a training facility for the Polish intelligence service.

From there, the plane flew directly to Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, close to the Romanian city of Constanta on the Black Sea coast. The Pentagon is involved in negotiations to take over the airbase’s operation. Throughout 2004, the plane made a number of other visits to Kogalniceanu, on which the US has spent at least $3m upgrading facilities in preparation for taking it over.

In 2003 Kogalniceanu was used as the temporary location for more than 3,500 US troops on their way to northern Iraq.

The Post’s decision not to name names is proving controvertial. The Columbia Journalism Review’s blog, for example, quotes foreign policy analyst Peter Kornbluh:

“This is probably the most important newspaper capitulation since [the New York Times] yielded to JFK’s call for them not to run the full story of planning for the Bay of Pigs. By withholding the country names, the Post is directly enabling the rendition, secret detention, and torture of prisoners at these locations to continue. That is a ghastly responsibility.”

CJR itself is more charitable, sugggesting that the Post may have deliberatly allowed itself to be scoopted on an important aspect of the story:

To Kornbluh, it’s moot that the Financial Times came along and filled in the holes the Post left in its account. We’re not so sure. The editors of the Post have been around the block a few times; they must have known it was inevitable that this information would come out. From outside looking in, it appears their motive was not to keep the information secret, but rather to avoid being the first to expose the location of the “black sites.”

What we do know is that the Post is trying to have it both ways: Getting credit for breaking the story, without breaking the specific details that might have caused it grief from the CIA.

Which raises an old question: Is it the job of a newspaper to tell us what it knows — or to bend over backwards to hide information from us?

It seems like a reasonable analysis. In the age of the Internet, where interested readers can easily turn to other sources from around the world, perhaps all that matters is getting the core of a story onto the grid. The full(er) picture was clearly going to emerge in other papers’ follow-up stories within hours. Negotiating and retaining access to sources, particularly in the intelligence community, is an important aspect of journalism. If your goal is to get information that is in the public interest out in the open, maintaining those relationships is sometimes more important than stating what should be fairly obvious to intelligent readers.