Rebellion Against Abuse
Thursday, November 3, 2005; A20
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.
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."
For some time a revolt against this disastrous policy has been gathering
steam inside the administration and in the Senate; it is led by senators such
as John McCain (R-Ariz.) and by the same military
officers and State Department officials who opposed Mr. Bush's decision to
disregard the Geneva accords. Their
opponents are a small group of civilian political appointees circled around Mr.
Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney. According to a
report in the New York Times, the military professionals want to restore Geneva's
protections against cruel treatment to the Pentagon's official doctrine for
handling detainees. Mr. McCain is seeking to ban "cruel, inhuman and
degrading" treatment for all detainees held by the United
States, including those in the CIA's secret
There is no more important issue before the country or Congress. Yet the
advocates of decency and common sense seem to have meager support from the
Democratic Party. Senate Democrats staged a legislative stunt on Tuesday
intended to reopen -- once again -- the debate on prewar intelligence about Iraq.
They have taken no such dramatic stand against the CIA's abuses of foreign
prisoners; on a conference committee considering Mr. McCain's amendment,
Democratic support has been faltering. While Democrats grandstand about a war
debate that took place three years ago, the Bush administration's champions of
torture are quietly working to preserve policies whose reversal ought to be an