Torture in CIA Prisons - An Independent Panel Is Needed

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

THE ALLEGATIONS are familiar, yet some of the details are sickeningly new. Senior al-Qaeda prisoners held in secret CIA prisons were made to stand for days in painful positions and deprived of solid food for just as long. Interrogators wrapped suspects in plastic, doused them with cold water and slammed them headlong into walls. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was allegedly shackled with his arms above his head for days at a time, leaving lasting scars.

The allegations were made to the International Red Cross by the prisoners after they were transferred to the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2006. The allegations are reportedly contained in an unreleased report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which labeled the treatment as torture. The report was obtained by writer Mark Danner, who quoted extensively from it in an article published this week by the New York Review of Books and in an op-ed column in the New York Times.

We do not know whether all the allegations are true. But according to Mr. Danner, the ICRC separately interviewed detainees who independently provided similar accounts of harsh treatment. It has already been confirmed that the Bush administration subjected three high-level terrorism suspects to waterboarding, the ancient practice of simulated drowning that has long been considered torture. And the judgment of the Red Cross is very important: The agency's unique status as a monitor of prisons around the world is based on its professionalism and impartiality. If it has accused the United States of torture, the charge -- which could indelibly stain the nation's global reputation -- must be taken seriously.

That's why it remains imperative for the Obama administration and Congress to cooperate in the creation of an independent commission to investigate the treatment of foreign detainees at Guantanamo and other foreign detention sites since 2001. A commission could determine exactly what was done to senior al-Qaeda detainees; it could evaluate the claims of former vice president Richard B. Cheney and other defenders of tough interrogation techniques that such methods produced information that saved lives. It could identify who was responsible for ordering illegal acts -- even if, as President Obama has suggested, criminal prosecutions are not appropriate.

Full disclosure is one way of undoing the damage done by the secret prisons and Guantanamo. It should not be left to the International Red Cross to document alleged instances of torture and other abuses; the United States should show itself capable of investigating and fully disclosing its own human rights violations.

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