The Ghost Prisoners


More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Put it this way, they’re no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.President George W. Bush, State of the Union address, February 4, 2003

These are people who were captured in different places in the world—in Pakistan, Morocco, Thailand, Indonesia—handed over to the U.S., and never heard from since. In some cases, we know that they’re being held and being questioned; in other cases, we simply have no idea what may have become of them. Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch, National Public Radio, June 19, 2004

It’s essential [for Bush to bolster his position with a national address affirming that] the U.S. will not tolerate abuse of helpless people [even if they] happen to be our mortal enemies. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2004

Battered by national and international outrage at photographs of the naked, contorted bodies of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration selectively released hundreds of classified documents on June 22, purporting to show that the previously leaked Justice Department and Defense Department memoranda justifying torture were just “scholarly” ruminations never to be actually implemented on human beings.

The next day, deep into a front-page New York Times story on this bumbling three-card-monte ploy by the Bush team, there was this key paragraph:

“None of the documents released Tuesday sheds any light on the legal thinking behind the detention of a small number of high-level Qaeda operatives who have been detained by the Central Intelligence Agency at secret locations around the world and who have been subjected to coercive interrogations without access to lawyers or human rights groups.”

A major error by the Times limits these ghost prisoners to “a small number.” I too was at fault in a previous column, “Disappearing Prisoners” (July 7-13), because, when writing it, I had not yet seen a 43-page, painstakingly annotated report, “Ending Secret Detentions,” by an invaluable organization, Human Rights First (formerly named the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).

The group’s previous extensively detailed analyses of the Bush administration’s shadow Constitution that is bypassing the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers have been vital to my research for these columns and for my book The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press).

The headline on Human Rights First’s press release about this new report, which is now reverberating in news media around the world, is “U.S. Holding Prisoners in More Than Two Dozen Secret Detention Facilities Worldwide.” It adds that “at least half of these operate in total secrecy.” These offshore prisons are “beyond the reach of adequate supervision, accountability, or law [and the Geneva Conventions]. . . . Human Rights First calls on the Administration to give the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) immediate access to all those it is holding in custody in the ‘war on terror.’ ”

On June 18, National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg reported, on National Public Radio (a persistently useful source on these abuses of international law): “The Red Cross, according to knowledgeable sources, has repeatedly warned administration officials that they were not complying with international law in the treatment of prisoners.”

But Donald Rumsfeld, echoing the commander in chief’s hollow homilies, said at the Pentagon on June 17: “I have high confidence that I have not seen anything that suggests that a senior civilian or military official of the United States of America has acted in a manner that’s inconsistent with the president’s request that everyone be treated humanely.”

What about the more than 24 secret interrogation centers around the world? Agence France-Presse, having seen Human Rights First’s report, noted on June 19: “The U.S. has refused to confirm or deny the report on secret detention cells”—not wanting, said an official in Afghanistan, to give “our enemy too much information.” The news agency quoted—from Geneva—Erof Bosisio of the International Committee of the Red Cross:

“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.”

But on June 1, Republican senator John McCain, for many years imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese, reminded the president and the defense secretary: “It is critical to realize that the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions do not endanger American soldiers, they protect them. Our soldiers enter battle with the knowledge that should they be taken prisoner, there are laws intended to protect them and impartial international observers to inquire after them.”

By hiding what may very well be intensely coercive interrogations—torture?—of these ghost prisoners, the Bush administration is giving added license to forces that capture American soldiers and also have no regard for international law.

In addition to hundreds held in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Human Rights First emphasizes, “thousands [are] held in more than a dozen locations in Iraq, some officially undisclosed, and an unknown number in Pakistan, Jordan, Diego Garcia, and on U.S. warships at sea.”

Where are the members of the House and Senate intelligence committees who have insisted on implementing the Supreme Court’s ruling that anyone held in our custody be given due process—the right to defend themselves publicly?