We still recall the improbable image of President Bill Clinton on television wagging his finger at the American people and saying with a straight face: "I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky." Clearly the man thought that his salacious activities in the Oval Office with the 20-year-old intern did not constitute sex.
I'm dredging up the image today because it reminded me of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wagging her finger at Europeans last week and saying, with an equally artless dodge - that the U.S. did not have "black sites," did not kidnap and "render" terror suspects, and that the U.S. has not engaged in torture of, and the infliction of "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of detainees.
Now there are two possible explanations for this: Either I've been reading the wrong newspapers or Condi lives in an alternative universe, where CIA agents adhere vigorously to guidelines set by the International Convention Against Torture. Madam Secretary, we need to talk.
In the first week of November, the Washington Post, in a scoop by its correspondent Dana Priest, revealed that the CIA maintains a network of Soviet-era compounds in eight Eastern European countries where 100 or more terror suspects are held in underground cells, denied legal rights, outside visitors and checks on their treatment by the International Red Cross. The existence of this network of black sites, as they are dubbed, remained secret from the American people. It was known only to the president and a handful of top U.S. officials, and in Europe only to heads of state and a few top officials in each host country.
And of course there is the dreadful practice of kidnapping suspects and "renditioning" them to countries known to practice torture, where they disappear for months or years.
When the CIA, a US government agency, out sources torture, what that means is that its agents are party to inflicting on people "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment." They are as much complicit in the act as the interrogators in the host country to which the suspects are rendered. No two ways about it.
The sad part of it all is that in its zeal to fight "global terror," the CIA has repeatedly discovered, after the fact, that many of the suspects it had "renditioned" were cases of mistaken identity. These have included the Canadian citizen Maher Arar, snatched in 2002 as he was switching planes in New York and rendered to Syria; the German citizen Khaled Masri [SEE VIDEO], who was nabbed on New Year's Eve 2003 in Macedonia and flown from there, handcuffed and blindfolded, to Afghanistan; and the Muslim cleric, Hassan Mustafa Nasir, an Egyptian refugee living in Italy as an asylum seeker, abducted off a street in Milan in March 2003 and 'renditioned' to Egypt, a case that prompted the city's lead prosecutor to call the case "a serious crime against Italian sovereignty and human rights."
It is reported that the CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, including many in the Arab world, has so far captured an estimated 3,000 people in its campaign to dismantle terrorist networks. It is impossible to know exactly how many similar cases of mistaken identities exist. Last week, in a follow-up of her earlier piece on the subject, Dana Priest reported in the Washington Post that, "the agency may have three dozen cases of detentions in error." That would constitute three dozen human tragedies.
Rice was able to weather protests in Europe over the black sites and torture of prisoners by resorting to double-speak. She told reporters in Ukraine, for example, that, "as a matter of policy, the United States' obligation under the International Convention Against Torture, which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment - those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are." Contestants at beauty pageants have given better answers.
It was revealed last week, for example, in a story broke by ABC, that the U.S. is far from having given up its secret prisons, simply transferring them from Eastern Europe to accommodating Arab countries in North Africa, or has given up holding suspects altogether, and is just sending them to countries where torture is standard practice.
Washington has a lot of explaining to do. The Department of Defense's general counsel, William H. Hayne, sent a letter to Congress a while back assuring its members that the administration's policy is "to treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they occur, in a manner consistent with the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution." Yet that does not jibe with the facts on the ground.
The long and short of it is that the U.S. is not only in violation of the International Convention Against Torture but of American law as well. In a case that was adjudicated by the Supreme Court in 2004, Rasul v. Bush, brought on behalf of the prisoners at Guantanamo, the justices ruled in favor of the detainees' habeas corpus rights, the 800-year old legal procedure derived from the Magna Carta and enshrined in the American Constitution, which requires the government to "show sufficient cause" by explaining to a court why it is holding a suspect.
Secretary Rice returned home last Friday on a positive note, when European governments at a sensitive moment in frayed Trans-Atlantic ties, opted not to pick a fight with Washington over the issue. But that happened only after she found herself repeatedly confronted by skeptical or hostile questions by reporters, to which she responded with a fog of disingenuous statements that her staff, not unlike Clinton's during the Lewinsky scandal, later struggled to explain.
There's only one way to put an end to the practice of torture, and that is to make it unlawful, as an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill by Senator John McCain seeks to do. Then there would be no need for the secretary of state to resort to double-speak or take the heat from reporters when explaining American policy to Europe and the rest of the world. The U.S. could then safely talk the talk about human rights, and at the same time walk the walk.