LAST MONTH a prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay military base excused himself from a conversation with his lawyer and stepped into a cell, where he slashed his arm and hung himself. This desperate attempted suicide by a detainee held for four years without charge, trial or any clear prospect of release was not isolated. At least 131 Guantanamo inmates began a hunger strike on Aug. 8 to protest their indefinite confinement, and more than two dozen are being kept alive only by force-feeding. No wonder Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has denied permission to U.N. human rights investigators to meet with detainees at Guantanamo: Their accounts would surely add to the discredit the United States has earned for its lawless treatment of foreign prisoners.
Guantanamo, however, is not the worst problem. As The Post's Dana Priest reported yesterday, the CIA maintains its own network of secret prisons, into which 100 or more terrorist suspects have "disappeared" as if they were victims of a Third World dictatorship. Some of the 30 most important prisoners are being held in secret facilities in Eastern European countries -- which should shame democratic governments that only recently dismantled Soviet-era secret police apparatuses. Held in dark underground cells, the prisoners have no legal rights, no visitors from outside the CIA and no checks on their treatment, even by the International Red Cross. President Bush has authorized interrogators to subject these men to "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment that is illegal in the United States and that is banned by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The governments that allow the CIA prisons on their territory violate this international law, if not their own laws.
This shameful situation is the direct result of Mr. Bush's decision in February 2002 to set aside the Geneva Conventions as well as standing U.S. regulations for the handling of detainees. Under the Geneva Conventions, al Qaeda militants could have been denied prisoner-of-war status and held indefinitely; they could have been interrogated and tried, either in U.S. courts or under the military system of justice. At the same time they would have been protected by Geneva from torture and other cruel treatment. Had Mr. Bush followed that course, the abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the severe damage they have caused to the United States, could have been averted. Key authors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, could have been put on trial, with their crimes exposed to the world.
Instead, not a single al Qaeda leader has been prosecuted in the past four years. The Pentagon's system of hearings on the status of Guantanamo detainees, introduced only after a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court, has no way of resolving the long-term status of most detainees. The CIA has no long-term plan for its secret prisoners, whom one agency official described as "a horrible burden."
For some time a revolt against this disastrous policy has been gathering steam inside the administration and in the Senate; it is led by senators such as John McCain (R-Ariz.) and by the same military officers and State Department officials who opposed Mr. Bush's decision to disregard the Geneva accords. Their opponents are a small group of civilian political appointees circled around Mr. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney. According to a report in the New York Times, the military professionals want to restore Geneva's protections against cruel treatment to the Pentagon's official doctrine for handling detainees. Mr. McCain is seeking to ban "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment for all detainees held by the United States, including those in the CIA's secret prisons.
There is no more important issue before the country or Congress. Yet the advocates of decency and common sense seem to have meager support from the Democratic Party. Senate Democrats staged a legislative stunt on Tuesday intended to reopen -- once again -- the debate on prewar intelligence about Iraq. They have taken no such dramatic stand against the CIA's abuses of foreign prisoners; on a conference committee considering Mr. McCain's amendment, Democratic support has been faltering. While Democrats grandstand about a war debate that took place three years ago, the Bush administration's champions of torture are quietly working to preserve policies whose reversal ought to be an urgent priority.