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The CIA's Disappeared

Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A24

THE BUSH administration pretends, and many Americans may believe, that the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners abroad ended after the release of sensational photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Sadly, it did not. While blaming the crimes at Abu Ghraib on a small group of low-ranking soldiers, the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA have fought to preserve the exceptional and sometimes secret policies that allow U.S. personnel to violate the Geneva Conventions and other laws governing the handling and interrogation of foreign detainees. Under those policies, practices at odds with basic American values continue -- even if there are no sensational photos to document them.

The latest example concerns "ghost prisoners," suspects captured in Iraq and Afghanistan who are interrogated by the CIA in secret locations, sometimes outside those countries, and whose identities and locations are withheld from relatives, the International Red Cross and even Congress. For all practical purposes, they have "disappeared," like the domestic detainees of some notorious dictatorships. The first official Army investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib called this practice "deceptive, contrary to Army doctrine and in violation of international law." Yet, according to reporting by The Post's Dana Priest, the CIA subsequently transported as many as a dozen more "ghost detainees" out of Iraq to interrogate them in its secret prisons.

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The Geneva Conventions, which the administration says it is following in Iraq, require the registration of all detainees with the Red Cross. They also prohibit "forcible transfers as well as deportations" of individuals, and ban all "physical or moral coercion . . . in particular to obtain information." To get around these rather clear-cut standards, the CIA seems to be relying once again on secret legal opinions whose conclusions -- once they leak out -- are disputed by nearly every authority other than Mr. Bush's political appointees. One, submitted to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales on March 18, is titled "Protected Persons in Occupied Iraq"; it argues that certain people captured there may be excluded from the conventions -- an interpretation at odds with that of the Red Cross. Another draft memo, drawn up by the Justice Department around the same time but never formally issued, argues that even "protected persons" may be taken out of Iraq and interrogated "for a brief but not indefinite period."

It's not clear what legal standards the CIA is using for its ghost prisoners, because it refuses to explain the standards even to the congressional committees charged with oversight, much less to the public. What ought to be clear, however, is that the practice of holding detainees incommunicado in secret prisons without any outside oversight violates basic standards of human rights. A number of members of Congress, including several Republican senators, have expressed outrage about the ghost detainees and have promised to investigate; to date they have not done so. Now would be a good time to start.

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