Top-Secret Torture

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

KHALID SHEIK Mohammed's cold-blooded confession of responsibility for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and other horrific crimes before a tribunal in Guantanamo Bay got a lot of attention when the Pentagon released a partial transcript last week -- and understandably so. But another set of disclosures by the al-Qaeda leader that could also be sensational received almost no attention. That's because the Pentagon swiftly classified a document submitted by Mr. Mohammed in which he detailed the torture he says he suffered. The rationale is that disclosure of those allegations would harm national security. In fact, the harm the Bush administration's abuse of prisoners has already done to this country's ability to combat Islamic extremism will only be compounded if it succeeds in making this shameful record a state secret.

The administration claims it has not used torture on prisoners such as Mr. Mohammed. Yet it has been working aggressively to ensure that he and 13 other accused terrorists formerly held in secret CIA prisons are never allowed to reveal how they were treated. In addition to classifying Mr. Mohammed's statement, the administration is making the surreal argument in court that in being subjected to "alternative" interrogation methods, al-Qaeda detainees were receiving top-secret information -- and so may be prohibited from ever discussing their experience, even to the defense attorneys seeking to represent them.

The government claims that this looking-glass policy is necessary to prevent al-Qaeda members still at large from learning of the CIA's methods so that they can train against them. Yet some of the harshest action taken against Mr. Mohammed has already been widely reported: He was treated to "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, an ancient torture method that every U.S. administration prior to this one has considered illegal. CIA detainees are also known to have been subjected to temperature extremes and sleep deprivation. The administration has assured Congress that it has dropped some of these methods, including waterboarding. If that's true, Mr. Mohammed's statement will not alert future detainees, but it will open a debate about whether the CIA's past practices were legal or morally justifiable.

That is what the administration is really trying to stop. If al-Qaeda members are allowed to talk about the abuse they suffered, President Bush's frequent contention that no one was tortured will come under question; so will his determination to maintain the CIA's secret detention "program." If the administration strategy succeeds, much of the trials and appeals of the al-Qaeda suspects will have to be conducted in secret -- something that will strip the proceedings of credibility and legitimacy.

Two senators who attended Mr. Mohammed's Guantanamo hearing, Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), issued a statement calling for an investigation of the torture charges. Yet any administration investigation -- especially one conducted in secret -- will almost certainly conclude that the waterboarding was approved by senior administration officials. What's needed is a genuinely independent investigation, one that airs Mr. Mohammed's charges and tests the administration's claim that the CIA's actions were legal. Mr. Levin -- as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- could conduct such a probe in cooperation with the Intelligence or Judiciary committees. What's stopping him?

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