Stomping on the flag
Carlton M. Caves
2005 November 2

In an article in today's Washington Post, entitled "CIA holds terror suspects in secret prisons," Dana Priest writes that the Central Intelligence Agency operates a network of secret "black-site" prisons throughout the world, including at several sites in Eastern Europe. At these prisons the agency holds its most prized al Qaeda captives, numbering about 30. Priest reports, "The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. 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."

These CIA black sites are independent of the system of military prisons, including the military's facility at Guantanamo Bay, but are intimately connected to the CIA's program of special rendition, in which detainees are transferred to prisons in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan, and other countries. The CIA renders its less prized captives, numbering perhaps 70, to these other countries, keeping only the most prized captives in its own gulag.

It is an unavoidable conclusion that these black sites involve gross human rights abuses and, almost certainly, torture. Otherwise, why the secrecy? Otherwise, how account for the recent request from Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss to exempt CIA employees from the McCain legislation that would bar cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody? Otherwise, why the need for facilities that operate outside even the rules of Guantanamo Bay? Priest writes that "although the CIA will not acknowledge details of its system, intelligence officials defend the agency's approach, arguing that the successful defense of the country requires that the agency be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the U.S. legal system or even by the military tribunals established for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay."

The military prison system, with more rules, more oversight, and a tradition of internal investigations that lead to public reports, went badly wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. The CIA's black sites operate in complete secrecy, with approval to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" that are forbidden to the military and by the UN Convention Against Torture and with no oversight except from a few officials in an administration that is dead set against any aspect of the operation seeing the light of day.

Priest's sources in the intelligence community told him, "The top 30 al Qaeda prisoners exist in complete isolation from the outside world. Kept in dark, sometimes underground cells, they have no recognized legal rights, and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with or even see them, or to otherwise verify their well-being." The lesser prisoners are farmed out through special rendition, presumably because the methods used in the receiving countries suffice with these less valuable captives.

What we can say with certainty is that the truth will come out, not in any systematic way as long as the Bush gang controls all the levers of power in America and can thus keep its dark secrets, but the truth will come out nonetheless. A fragmentary, but still compelling picture will emerge haltingly, through leaks by disaffected officials in the intelligence community, who can recognize a betrayal of American principles when they see it and who realize how much damage can be done to American interests and to the intelligence community itself. Another avenue to truth will be the investigations now being launched by the parliaments of Canada, Italy, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, which are concerned about the treatment of their citizens in CIA prison facilities.

The truth will out, and it will not be pretty. This is not to say that the people we are holding are good guys or even slightly better than the worst guys---although who can tell given the secrecy---but what the world will see is not that we're holding bad guys, but that in holding them, the United States is arrogating to itself the prerogative to act far outside the norms of civilized behavior. This is not a case of a few excesses right after 9/11, when emotions were high and mistakes could be expected and perhaps excused. Rather it is a case of a systematic policy pursued since shortly after 9/11 with the encouragement and approval of the very highest levels of our government. Our leaders could stop it anytime, but they choose not to.

As the truth emerges, the damage to the reputation of the United States will be devastating. Our government will be dealing with the consequences for years, as wiser leaders try to remove the taint of torture in a secret gulag from our resume. The truth will label as rank hypocrisy our calling attention to the human-rights abuses committed by other countries.

We get all this from the Bush gang, which has never seen a criticism they wouldn't try to deflect by wrapping themselves in the flag and declaring the opposition to be unpatriotic. What they have done here is to drop the flag into the dirt and then to stomp all over it.

When the full truth finally emerges, there will be an outcry in this country, just as there was when CIA abuses were exposed in the 1970s. At least one hopes there will be an outcry, from the 60+% of the population that is not part of the conservative base and perhaps even from some elements of the Christian right, who might discover that their moral values cover more than abortion and same-sex marriage. The result will be restrictions on how the CIA operates, restrictions that in some cases might go too far and impact the ability of the CIA to do its job. If that happens, you'll know who to blame: the Bush gang that pushed and encouraged these gross CIA excesses and the high CIA officials who implemented the policies and defended them within the government.

The way these deep covert operations are approved is a perfect example of how not to run a democratic government. The CIA can do whatever it wants as long as the president, in consultation with only a few high officials in the government, issues a secret "finding" that what the agency is doing is suitable and lawful. Such a structure relies on good people, in this case the president and his closest advisors, to do good things. As such, it is profoundly un-American. The most important lesson of the American experience is that power must be tightly hedged round with checks and balances. We restrict power in this way because we know that if the only defense is good people doing good things, eventually there will come along bad people who do bad things. In this case, the checks must be provided by the Congress, which has failed utterly in its responsibility to oversee the CIA---it's our tax dollars, appropriated by the Congress, that built the CIA's gulag---and that failure of responsibility falls chiefly on the Republicans who control the Congress. The bad people who came along are the Bush gang, led by the president, whose general vacuity, starkly revealed in his response to Hurricane Katrina, means he might not even appreciate how much damage he's doing, and a secretive, manipulative, deceitful, vindictive vice president, who seems to be little better than a thug.

What a travesty for a president to trumpet the spread of democracy everywhere in the world as the grand organizing principle of American foreign policy, even as he puts in place secret policies that are a perversion of the most basic democratic values.

Addendum: 2005 November 5

An Associated Press story in this morning's Albuquerque Journal reports that Cheney "made an unusual personal appeal to Republican senators this week to allow CIA exemptions to a proposed ban on the torture of terror suspects in U.S. custody." Cheney made his request in a private meeting with the senators, after congressional aides had left the room. Cheney denied that the CIA uses torture, but wanted the exemption just in case the president wanted to engage in torture in specific cases. Senator Sessions of Alabama is reported to have supported Cheney's request, whereas Senator McCain, to his continuing credit, dissented. The real question is why these Congressional leaders didn't immediately demand a complete report on the CIA's black-site facilities, but perhaps that's why Cheney meets with Republicans.

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Powell chief of staff, has been drawing attention to how Cheney and Rumsfeld have controlled US foreign policy. Yesterday on NPR's Morning Edition, Colonel Wilkerson directly accused Cheney and Rumsfeld of originating the directives that led to the prison abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, "I'm privy to the paperwork, both classified and unclassified, that the Secretary of State asked me to assemble on how this all got started, what the audit trail was, and when I began to assemble this paperwork, which I no longer have access to, it was clear to me that there was a visible audit trail from the vice president's office through the Secretary of Defense down to the commanders in the field that in carefully couched terms---I'll give you that---that to a soldier in the field meant two things: we're not getting enough good intelligence, and you need to get that evidence, and, oh, by the way, here's some ways you probably can get it. And even some of the ways that they detailed were not in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war." This is damning evidence that the investigations of abuse in the military prisons have stopped way, way too far down the chain of command. For present purposes, however, it is important in evaluating Cheney's denials of torture in the CIA black sites and, more important, his future denials---they will come---of personal responsibility for the torture that is revealed by investigations of those facilities.

Addendum: 2005 November 8

What a joke the Republican Congressional leadership is. Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)---he of the long-distance medical diagnosis---and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.), after noting that disclosures of the CIA's black-site gulag "could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences, and will imperil our efforts to protect the American people and our homeland from terrorist attacks," directed the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to investigate---you guessed it---the leak of information about the system to the Washington Post. Fortunately, there are still a few Republican senators who have enough sense to appreciate that the message is more important than shooting the messenger. Indeed, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) got it just right: "Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails."

Addendum: 2005 November 24

Sure enough. Even while he and his gang are stomping on the flag with their CIA prisons and abusive detention policies, Bush found time during his Veterans Day speech to wrap himself in the flag by renewing his support for a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration: "I've joined with the veterans groups to call on Congress to protect the flag of the United States in the Constitution of the United States. In June, the House of Representatives voted for a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. I urge the United States Senate to pass this important amendment."

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