News Analysis

Shakespeare’s line, “When troubles come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions,” may well apply to the Bush administration. On top of Iraq and New Orleans and the debacle of Harriet Miers, comes what could be a huge international scandal affecting the United States and its relationship with allies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported Nov. 2 that the Central Intelligence Agency has set up secret prison facilities in unnamed Eastern European countries to which it is sending some of its prisoners in the “war on terror.” Evidently, the purpose of doing this is to make sure that these prisoners cannot assert any legal or constitutional rights, and cannot be visited by attorneys, human rights advocates or even the Red Cross.

The European Commission and the International Committee of the Red Cross have demanded to know the locations of the prisons and other details. Human Rights Watch, basing itself on flight patterns of U.S. aircraft leaving Afghanistan, suggested that the countries involved were Poland and Romania, whose governments issued sharp denials. Well they might, because in all likelihood hosting such CIA secret prisons would violate the laws of the host countries as well as of the European Union, not to speak of sundry international agreements.

The Washington Post itself came under criticism from the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for acceding to U.S. government demands that the countries not be named.

This bombshell follows hard upon a highly publicized disagreement between the administration and the Senate over the use of torture. Last month the Senate voted 90-9 to add language to the Defense Department appropriations bill that would forbid United States personnel from using torture or cruel or degrading treatment on anyone in U.S. custody.

Vice President Dick Cheney, backed by the threat of a presidential veto, lobbied hard for the CIA to be exempted. The response of the Senate was to approve the torture ban again, this time by a unanimous voice vote. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican and sponsor of the measure, and the vast majority of Republican senators have now shown themselves willing to buck the White House and Cheney on this issue.

In the Abu Ghraib scandal, one of the elements brushed aside was the accusation by military personnel that they had been ordered to torture Iraqi prisoners by CIA agents. And there have been repeated accusations in the press that the government is sending prisoners out of the U.S. to countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and even Syria so that they can be tortured without directly involving the U.S. government in illegal acts.

The Bush administration denies this, but comes up with no other logical explanation of its practice of “rendition.” Indeed, the juxtaposition of the government’s effort to get the CIA exempted from the torture provision alongside reports of secret CIA sites overseas creates a strong impression that the agency may be using torture at those sites.

This is not a new role for the CIA. In Latin America, for example, the agency and U.S. military personnel have for many years been credibly accused through eyewitness testimony and incriminating documents of training local military and police in torture techniques. Also, reports of torture in U.S. police stations, prisons and jails at the hands of police, prison guards, or even fellow prisoners acting on behalf of the system in exchange for favors are quite common.

Not only the Geneva conventions, but other international laws, not to mention the laws of the U.S. and the countries to which the prisoners are being sent, prohibit the use of torture, but the devil is in the definition. U.S. government officials have claimed that torture is not really torture unless the victim feels that his or her leg is being sawed off. Freezing, roasting, terrifying with dogs or with threats to one’s family, being urinated on or being sodomized, are simply not torture according to this Bush administration “logic.”

The CIA, as well as all other government agencies, must be forbidden from torturing and using secret prisons.