Out of a Bad Spy Novel

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 4, 2005

The men from the pages of a bad spy novel throw people they don't like into secret prisons that officially do not exist, snug little dungeons hidden away in undisclosed countries. These spy-novel men keep to the shadows; if a ray of sunlight happens to fall upon one of their lairs, they scurry away to some other dark corner. They make their "high-value" prisoners simply disappear -- no charges, no hearings, no exit.

They tell us that we shouldn't worry, that every one of these prisoners is evil beyond redemption. And, anyway, what prisoners?

To interrogate these prisoners who don't exist, the spy-novel men use practices that international agreements classify as torture. Again, they tell us not to worry. They produce legal opinions, written by lawyers from the pages of a bad spy novel, proving definitively that torture is not, in fact, torture. Besides, the spy-novel men outsource the really messy business to cooperative regimes for which the word "qualms" has no meaning.

The spy-novel men have not lost all self-awareness. They know this Kafkaesque system would never survive public scrutiny. So they go to any lengths to keep their dirty work hidden. They fear exposure more than they fear anything in the world.

It's not 1965, and these men are not Soviet or East German spymasters playing the role of villains in the Cold War. It's 2005, and the spy-novel men are American officials whose un-American treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism has shamed our nation.

As reporter Dana Priest revealed in The Post this week, the Bush administration has held dozens of al Qaeda prisoners in secret prisons, with no regard to due process. It was a "small circle of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials" who approved this archipelago of "black-site" detention centers, The Post reported.

These CIA-run prisons have been operated in eight countries, The Post said -- Afghanistan, Thailand, the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba and "several democracies in Eastern Europe." Officials prevailed upon The Post not to disclose the names of the European countries, citing national security concerns. The real reason, no doubt, was that if citizens of those countries knew their governments were hosting secret American prisons, they would surely object.

That's what happened in Thailand two years ago when the public found out about a secret CIA prison where two top-level al Qaeda officials were being interrogated. As soon as the prison came to light, Thai officials told the CIA to shut it down and move the prisoners somewhere else. Already, in the wake of The Post's report, European Union officials are questioning member states to learn whether they have allowed the CIA to set up "black-site" prisons on their soil.

From earlier reports on interrogation practices, we know how the prisoners are being treated. The John le Carre wannabes in the administration are fighting tooth and nail against a move by Sen. John McCain and other responsible leaders on Capitol Hill to require the military and the CIA to bar cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners.

Why does it matter how we treat a bunch of Islamic radicals who are sworn to bring death and destruction to the United States? It matters because the United States draws its strength and its moral authority in the world from its ideals. We preach about due process, we preach about the rule of law, we preach about humane treatment -- and now we're ignoring our own pronouncements.

But there's more at stake than American standing in the world. Our ideals are the heart and soul of this nation. We are not an ancient nation united by language or blood. Our ideals, rather than ethnicity or even territory, hold us together and make us a nation. When we betray those ideals, we weaken America.

Would it be so risky to do the right thing -- to bring al Qaeda operatives into American courtrooms and give them proper trials? There might be a risk, but this is a country that routinely accepts risks as the price of upholding its ideals. For example, we tolerate thousands of deaths by gunfire every year as the cost of respecting the right to bear arms. Most other nations would consider our homicide rate an unacceptable holocaust. We're not like most other nations.

I so wish all this were just a bad spy novel, but it's not. You couldn't get this book published, because it's just not credible. This isn't the way the American government behaves.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company