A Weak Defense

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

IN AN ATTEMPT to quell a growing storm in Europe over the CIA's secret prisons, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday issued a defense based on the same legalistic jujitsu and morally obtuse double talk that led the Bush administration into a swamp of human rights abuses in the first place. Ms. Rice insisted that the U.S. government "does not authorize or condone torture" of detainees. What she didn't say is that President Bush's political appointees have redefined the term "torture" so that it does not cover practices, such as simulated drowning, mock execution and "cold cells," that have long been considered abusive by authorities such as her State Department.

Ms. Rice said, "It is also U.S. policy that authorized interrogation will be consistent with U.S. obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." What she didn't explain is that, under this administration's eccentric definition of "U.S. obligations," cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is not prohibited as long as it does not occur on U.S. territory. That is the reason for the secret prisons that the CIA has established in European countries and other locations around the world, and for the "renditions" of detainees to countries such as Egypt and Jordan: so that the administration can violate the very treaty Ms. Rice claims it is upholding.

Ms. Rice did offer some persuasive arguments, including that "captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice"; that's one reason we believe congressional action to regulate those detentions and interrogations is overdue. It's hard not to sympathize with the secretary of state, who has seen 10 months of meticulous and until now successful work to repair transatlantic relations undermined by a policy not of her making. Yet the Bush administration surely cannot expect that the uproar in European countries, including staunch allies such as Britain, will be contained through such hairsplitting spin. The political backlash is still growing, and the damage could be considerable. For example, the plans of the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to rebuild close relations with the United States have been seriously threatened by emerging reports of German participation in CIA renditions.

The only way to remedy the damage is to change the underlying policies. Such a change would help rather than hurt the fight against terrorism. By now the administration should recognize that, whether or not its abductions of terrorist suspects from European countries have been legal or justified, they have surely been counterproductive: The blowback against questionable renditions from Italy, Sweden and Germany has damaged the ability of those countries to support future collaboration with the CIA. If CIA prisoners are still being held in Europe, they probably won't be staying much longer; Washington's Eastern European friends stand to suffer severe censure from the European Union.

One simple step by President Bush would resolve much of the controversy over prisoner abuse, and ease Ms. Rice's journey through Europe this week. The president could accept Sen. John McCain's amendment to the defense appropriations bill, which prohibits "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" for all prisoners held by the United States. The legislation has overwhelming support in Congress, as the White House recognizes; already, the administration has shifted from threatening a veto to bargaining with Mr. McCain over granting immunity to CIA personnel involved in abuses. Once a clear ban on inhuman treatment is in place, the administration will have no legal reason to hold al Qaeda suspects in secret foreign prisons. Even better, Ms. Rice will have more credibility the next time she declares that the United States does not engage in torture.

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