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'Values' We Have to Hide Abroad

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, September 8, 2006

If the secret prisons where U.S. agents interrogated "high-value" terrorism suspects with "alternative" techniques are so legitimate and legal, if they're so fully consistent with American values and traditions, then why are they overseas?

That's one thing the Decider didn't tell us Wednesday in his forceful yet obfuscatory speech confirming the existence of the CIA prisons and announcing the transfer of 14 detainees to Guantanamo Bay, including boldface-name miscreants such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida.

The president at least gave a reason why the locations of the prisons are still being kept secret, even if it wasn't the whole story. He said secrecy was needed to protect our allies from terrorist retribution, which might well be true. But governments of the host countries are probably more worried about the ire of the citizens who elected them, given the unpopularity of the Bush administration's foreign policy in much of the world, and some doubtless are concerned that the secret prisons violate host-country laws and international treaties.

In other words, the prisons (which apparently have been emptied, for the moment, but not closed down) were kept secret because they're overseas. But the Decider said not a word about why he decided the prisons had to be located in other countries in the first place.

Why not hold the suspects, say, in one of the many super-secure facilities in and around Washington? They would be much more accessible to the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon and any other agency that wanted a crack at them. And since al-Qaeda is already determined to attack the United States, why even risk creating potential problems for loyal overseas allies? Why not interrogate America's deadliest enemies on American soil?

Since the president didn't address this question, I'll try. The only reason that makes any sense to me is that the Decider wanted to put his secret prisons beyond the reach of U.S. courts. I think the president and his lawyers knew from the beginning that detaining suspects indefinitely and wringing information out of them with methods that international agreements define as torture -- "an alternative set of procedures" was the president's delicate euphemism -- wouldn't amuse even the most law-and-order federal judge.

The full story of what has taken place at Guantanamo Bay and in the CIA's overseas prisons will come out someday. But even with the little we know so far, I remain convinced that history will view these acts of arbitrary detention, extraordinary rendition and coercive interrogation with strong censure and deep shame. The president's claim that "the United States does not torture" comes with an asterisk, since his definition of torture is as tortured as Bill Clinton's definition of "is."

Look, I know that when Khalid Sheik Mohammed (whom the president called "KSM'') and the others came into U.S. custody, they were full of murderous intent and harbored vital knowledge of active plots to kill innocent people. If KSM was indeed "waterboarded," as has been reported, I shed no tears for his discomfort. My concern is for the rule of law and the norms of civilized behavior -- concepts the Decider says he wants the rest of the world to respect.

If the president needed a "hot pursuit" exemption to allow some specific forms of coercive interrogation, he should have asked Congress to give it to him -- rather than rely on a vague blanket authorization to pursue the war on terrorism. If the judgment was that coercion had to be applied anyway, absent a law allowing it, then the officials who ordered the coercion should have had to defend their actions in a court of law. Was it clearly a question of needing the information immediately? Was there no other way to get the suspects to talk?

There is less ambiguity about the question of arbitrary, indefinite detention. It's wrong, and the president knows it's wrong. The Supreme Court had to order the president to do what he knows he should -- formally charge the detainees at Guantanamo and give them fair trials of some kind -- but even now he wants to stack the deck by refusing to let the detainees even see or hear some of the evidence against them.

No, an American "detained" by al-Qaeda wouldn't enjoy a guarantee of due process. But we're not al-Qaeda. I thought that was the whole point.

Oh, one more thing the president didn't mention, for some reason: Those 14 most-wanted terrorists who were kept in the secret prisons? As far as we know, not a single one was captured in Iraq.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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