Congress and the Disappeared
Human-rights history was made on February 7 of this year when, in Paris, 57 nations signed an unprecedented new international treaty prohibiting any of these countries from engaging in what the CIA calls "extraordinary renditions": secretly snatching terrorism suspects and sending them to countries known for their expertise in torturing the people in their custody. The new treaty also forbids holding suspects in secret prisonsa continuing CIA specialtyor otherwise making people disappear.
Though invited to sign the treaty, the United States of America declined, without any discernible sense of embarrassment at being, after all, the world's most expert and efficient producer of secret prisoners.
Our president, after all, had already signaled very different intentions about protecting American values in an age of terrorism when, in his second State of the Union address (January 28, 2003), he chillingly declared: "More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this waythey are no longer a problem." (Emphasis added.)
Only six days after 9/11, Bush had set in motion CIA "special powers" that would lead to the renditions and the secret prisons. On September 17, 2001, he told the National Security Council that he was about to give the agency "special authorities to detain Al Qaeda operatives worldwide." He followed up on March 13, 2002, insisting on "the President's power as commander-in-chief to transfer captured terrorists to the control and custody of foreign nations."
As he was later to say on Ted Koppel's Nightline: "You need to have a president who understands you can't win this war with legal papers. We've got to use every asset at our disposal."
By July 2004, the investigative organization Human Rights First had released a thoroughly documented 43-page report, "Ending Secret Detentions." It was announced under a news release headlined "U.S. Holding Prisoners in More Than Two Dozen Secret Detention Facilities Worldwide." And in the text itself: "At least half of these operate in total secrecy . . . beyond the reach of adequate supervision, accountability, or law."
On seeing that report, the International Red Cross told Agence France-Presse: "We are more and more concerned about the lot of the unknown number of people captured . . . and detained in secret places. We have asked for information on these people and access to them. Until now we have received no response from the Americans."
One American was very concerned, but we didn't hear from him until November 6 of this year, on PBS's Frontlinethe most fearless and valuable documentary series since Edward R. Murrow's on CBS. In Extraordinary Rendition, Tyler Drumheller, who ran CIA operations in Europe in 2003, said of the CIA's secret jails: "We are an intelligence service, an espionage service. Not jailers. . . . Everything that the military didn't want to do or felt uncomfortable doing ended up in the lap of the CIA."
For the last three years, the existence of these secret prisons and the practice of extraordinary rendition has been increasingly known around the world thanks to the European press and such American reporters as Dana Priest of The Washington Post and Jane Mayer of The New Yorkerand has also been detailed in many of these columns.
But there has yet to be a Congressional investigation into these pervasive American war crimes, as clearly defined in the Geneva Conventions and our own war-crimes statutes including nothing from the present Congress, led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.
There are Democratic members of Congressnotably Senators Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, Russ Feingold, Joe Biden, and Ron Wydenwho keep pressuring the White House, to no avail, to release the documents outlining the orders that have made this nation a worldwide supercriminal, thereby lowering our stature throughout the globe as never before.
So the leaders of Congress, by their inaction, are as complicit as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and the rest of those administration officials who have authorized untold numbers of disappeared prisoners and the torture of kidnapped suspects worldwide.
In an October 27 article by Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post ("From CIA Jails, Inmates Fade Into Obscurity"), the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that it had "failed to find dozens of people once believed to have been in CIA custody. . . ."
So far as I can learn in the years I've been covering this story, CIA "black sites" have existed and may still be operating in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Tunisia, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, and India.
"Some [prisoners]," Whitlock reports, "have been secretly transferred to their home countries, where they remain in detention and out of public view, according to interviews in Pakistan and Europe with government officials, human rights groups and lawyers for the detainees. Others have disappeared without a trace and may or may not still be under CIA control." (Emphasis added.)
In June 2004, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch wrote: "The Bush administration apparently believed that the new wars it was fighting could not be won if it was constrained by the 'old' rules."
Our new attorney general, Michael Mukasey, agrees with his commander in chief, having written in The Wall Street Journal before his nomination that "current institutions and statutes are not well suited to . . . what became, after Sept. 11, 2001, principally a military effort to combat Islamic terrorism."
Nonetheless, Senators Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein are primarily responsible for making Mukasey our chief law-enforcement officer, even as the secret CIA "black sites" continue to exist under the depraved new rules by which we are now being judged around the globeand will be judged by history.
Three years ago, Brody foretold the ultimate result: "Ironically, the new administration is now finding that . . . rather than advance the war on terror, the widespread prisoner abuse has damaged efforts to build global support for countering terrorism. . . . Policies adopted to make the United States more secure from terrorism have in fact made it more vulnerable."
Will any candidate for the presidency in 2008 be able to turn us around? So far, this appalling state of affairs has yet to become a campaign issue.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.