Damn the New York Times and its damn subscription firewall. Bob Herbert’s column for Thursday comments on the CIA’s secret prisons (see “Government of Sadists,” below) and it’s brilliant.
[Update: Legally or illegally, you can read the whole thing here.]
Ultimately the whole truth will come out and historians will have their say, and Americans will look in the mirror and be ashamed.
Abraham Lincoln spoke of the “better angels” of our nature. George W. Bush will have none of that. He’s set his sights much, much lower. …
…The individuals held in these prisons have been deprived of all rights. They don’t even have the basic minimum safeguards of prisoners of war. If they are being tortured or otherwise abused, there is no way for the outside world to know about it. If some mistake has been made and they are, in fact, innocent of wrongdoing – too bad.
As Ms. Priest wrote, “Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.”
This is the border along which democracy bleeds into tyranny.
No doubt, says Herbert, some of the individuals detained are murderers who intend to do us harm. But others possibly are not.
After September 11, the CIA had planned to hide and interrogate a small number–two or three dozen–top leaders of Al Qaeda with knowledge of terrorist plots against the United States. But somehow it got away from them. As Dana Priest wrote in the Washington Post, no one seems to have thought out the strategic purpose of the secret prisons.
A number of current and former officials told The Washington Post that “the original standard for consigning suspects to the invisible universe was lowered or ignored.”
The secret C.I.A. prisons are just one link in the long chain of abominations that the Bush administration has unrolled in its so-called fight against terrorism. Rendition, the outsourcing of torture to places like Egypt, Jordan and Syria, is another. And then there are the thousands upon thousands of detainees being held at GuantÃ¡namo Bay in Cuba, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. There is little, if any, legal oversight of these detainees, or effective monitoring of the conditions in which they are being held.
Terrible instances of torture and other forms of abuse of detainees have come to light. The Pentagon has listed the deaths of at least 27 prisoners in American custody as confirmed or suspected criminal homicides.
And here is the part that disturbs me most:
None of this has given the administration pause. It continues to go out of its way to block a legislative effort by Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, to ban the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of any prisoner in U.S. custody.
And for what purpose? There’s no indication any useful intelligence has come out of these prisons. Granted, such information is classified. But you know that if the Bushies could brag about such intelligence having foiled one terrorist plot, they’d be doing it.
Last month, President Bush said in a speech that the U.S. and its allies had foiled at least 10 al Qaeda plots since September 11, 2001. But when challenged to provide details as to what those plots might have been, the White House had to “clarify”; it appears the “plots” had generally not yet reach the plotting stage. Sara Goo wrote in the Washington Post (October 23):
A White House list of 10 terrorist plots disrupted by the United States has confused counterterrorism experts and officials, who say they cannot distinguish between the importance of some incidents on the list and others that were left off.
Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed. Others noted that the nation’s color-coded threat index was not raised from yellow, or “elevated” risk of attack, to orange, or “high” risk, for most of the time covered by the incidents on the list.
The president made it “sound like well-hatched plans,” said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. “I don’t think they fall into that category.”
Some terrorists have been foiled, of course, such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. As I recall, he was prevented from blowing up an airplane by a stewardess who spotted Reid trying to ignite his shoes.
There are other ways, you know. Four al Qaeda members captured after the 1998 embassy bombings were tried and convicted in New York. At least one of those convicted, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-‘Owhali, provided considerable information about al Qaeda operations, as did Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of trying to smuggle a bomb intended for the Los Angeles Airport into the U.S. These men had the benefit of U.S. courts of law, yet they talked. Amazing.
Bob Herbert continues,
I had a conversation yesterday with Michael Posner, executive director of Human Rights First, about the secret C.I.A. prisons. “We’re a nation founded on laws and rules that say you treat people humanely,” he said, “and among the safeguards is that people in detention should be formally recognized; they should have access, at a minimum, to the Red Cross; and somebody should be accountable for their treatment.
“What we’ve done is essentially to throw away the rule book and say that there are some people who are beyond the law, beyond scrutiny, and that the people doing the detentions and interrogations are totally unaccountable. It’s a secret process that almost inevitably leads to abuse.”
Worse stories are still to come – stories of murder, torture and abuse. We’ll watch them unfold the way people watch the aftermath of terrible accidents. And then we’ll ask, “How could this have happened?”
Some of us already know.
Update: Also in the New York Times, this editorial:
It’s maddening. Why does the Bush administration keep forcing policies on the United States military that endanger Americans wearing the nation’s uniform – policies that the military does not want, that do not work and that violate standards upheld by the civilized world for decades?
When the Bush administration rewrote the rules for dealing with prisoners after 9/11, needlessly scrapping the Geneva Conventions and American law, it ignored the objections of lawyers for the armed services. Now, heedless of the lessons of Abu Ghraib, the civilians are once again running over the people in uniform. Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt reported yesterday in The Times that the administration is blocking the Pentagon from adopting the language of the Geneva Conventions to set rules for handling prisoners in the so-called war on terror.
Senior military lawyers want these standards, as do some Defense and State Department officials outside the inner circle. They say the abuse and torture of prisoners has reduced America’s standing with its allies and taken away its moral high ground with the rest of the world. They also know that it endangers any American soldiers who are captured.
The rigid ideologues blocking this reform say the Geneva Conventions banning inhumane treatment are too vague. Which part of no murder, torture, mutilation, cruelty or humiliation do they not understand? The restrictions are a problem only if you want to do such abhorrent things and pretend they are legal. That is why the Bush administration tossed out the rules after 9/11.
It’s a terrifying thing when the people who devote their lives to protecting our national security feel that the civilians who oversee their operations are out of control. Dana Priest reports in The Washington Post that even the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine operators are getting nervous about the network of secret prisons they have around the world – including, of all places, at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe.
We’re not naÃ¯ve enough to believe that if the C.I.A. nabs a Qaeda operative who knows where a ticking bomb is hidden, that terrorist will emerge unbruised from his interrogation. Extraordinary circumstances are different from general policies that allow foot soldiers and even innocent bystanders to be swept up in messy, uncontrolled and probably fruitless detentions. Ms. Priest reports that of the more than 100 prisoners sent by the C.I.A. to its “black site” camps, only 30 are considered major terrorism suspects, and some have presumably been kept so long that their information is out of date. The rest have limited intelligence value, according to The Post, and many of them have been subjected to the odious United States practice of shipping prisoners to countries like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco and pretending that they won’t be tortured.
The editorial notes that torture stories always seem to circle around Dick Cheney’s office.
Mr. Cheney, a prime mover behind the attempts to legalize torture, is now leading a back-room fight to block a measure passed by the Senate, 90 to 9, that would impose international standards and American laws on the treatment of prisoners. Mr. Cheney wants a different version, one that would make the C.I.A.’s camps legal, although still hidden, and authorize the use of torture by intelligence agents. Mr. Bush is threatening to veto the entire military budget over this issue. …
Here’s the boffo finish:
So we can only conclude that President Bush has decided to expend the minimal clout remaining to his beleaguered administration in a fight to put the full faith and credit of the United States behind the concept of torture. After all, the sign on Dick Cheney’s door says he is the vice president.
Also—An editorial in today’s Washington Post:
LAST MONTH a prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay military base excused himself from a conversation with his lawyer and stepped into a cell, where he slashed his arm and hung himself. This desperate attempted suicide by a detainee held for four years without charge, trial or any clear prospect of release was not isolated. At least 131 Guantanamo inmates began a hunger strike on Aug. 8 to protest their indefinite confinement, and more than two dozen are being kept alive only by force-feeding. No wonder Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has denied permission to U.N. human rights investigators to meet with detainees at Guantanamo: Their accounts would surely add to the discredit the United States has earned for its lawless treatment of foreign prisoners.
Guantanamo, however, is not the worst problem. As The Post’s Dana Priest reported yesterday, the CIA maintains its own network of secret prisons, into which 100 or more terrorist suspects have “disappeared” as if they were victims of a Third World dictatorship. Some of the 30 most important prisoners are being held in secret facilities in Eastern European countries — which should shame democratic governments that only recently dismantled Soviet-era secret police apparatuses. Held in dark underground cells, the prisoners have no legal rights, no visitors from outside the CIA and no checks on their treatment, even by the International Red Cross. President Bush has authorized interrogators to subject these men to “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment that is illegal in the United States and that is banned by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The governments that allow the CIA prisons on their territory violate this international law, if not their own laws.
This shameful situation is the direct result of Mr. Bush’s decision in February 2002 to set aside the Geneva Conventions as well as standing U.S. regulations for the handling of detainees. Under the Geneva Conventions, al Qaeda militants could have been denied prisoner-of-war status and held indefinitely; they could have been interrogated and tried, either in U.S. courts or under the military system of justice. At the same time they would have been protected by Geneva from torture and other cruel treatment. Had Mr. Bush followed that course, the abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the severe damage they have caused to the United States, could have been averted. Key authors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, could have been put on trial, with their crimes exposed to the world.
Instead, not a single al Qaeda leader has been prosecuted in the past four years. The Pentagon’s system of hearings on the status of Guantanamo detainees, introduced only after a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court, has no way of resolving the long-term status of most detainees. The CIA has no long-term plan for its secret prisoners, whom one agency official described as “a horrible burden.”
Some Senators (led by John McCain) plus military officers and career State Department officials oppose the Bush torture policy. The advocates of torture, the editorial says, are “a small group of civilian political appointees circled around Mr. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.” And weenies every one, no doubt. Real men don’t get off on torture.
This being WaPo, the editorial writer must follow staff guidelines and find a way to blame Democrats. In this case, the Dems are criticized for orchestrating a “stunt” to “reopen — once again — the debate on prewar intelligence about Iraq” instead of working to close the secret prisons. Of course, we’ve never actually had a full debate on prewar intelligence and we desperately need one, but I guess the Dems are supposed to shut up and wait until Senate Republicans decide to have it, which will be about the same time pigs are seen flying around the capitol dome.