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From The New York Times - 8 March 2005


Torture by Proxy

One of the biggest nonsecrets in Washington these days is the Central Intelligence Agency's top-secret program for sending terrorism suspects to countries where concern for human rights and the rule of law don't pose obstacles to torturing prisoners. For months, the Bush administration has refused to comment on these operations, which make the United States the partner of some of the world's most repressive regimes.

But a senior official talked about it to The Times's Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, saying he wanted to rebut assertions that the United States was putting prisoners in the hands of outlaw regimes for the specific purpose of having someone else torture them. Sadly, his explanation, reported on Sunday, simply confirmed that the Bush administration has been outsourcing torture and intends to keep doing it.

For years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the C.I.A. had occasionally engaged in the practice known in bureaucratese by the creepy euphemism "extraordinary rendition." But after the attacks in New York and Washington, President Bush gave the agency broad authority to export prisoners without getting permission from the White House or the Justice Department. Rendition has become central to antiterrorism operations at the C.I.A., which also operates clandestine camps around the world for prisoners it doesn't want the International Red Cross or the American public to know about.

According to the Times article, the C.I.A. has flown 100 to 150 suspected terrorists to countries like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan - each a habitual offender when it comes to torture. It's against American law and international convention to send prisoners to any nation where they are likely to be tortured, so the official said no prisoner is sent to another country without assurances from that government that they will be treated humanely. He said that C.I.A. officials "check on those assurances, and we double-check."

Those assurances are worthless, and the Bush administration surely knows it. In normal times, the governments of these countries have abysmal standards for human rights and humane treatment, and would have no problem promising that a prisoner won't be tortured - right before he's tortured. And these are not normal times. The Bush administration has long since made it clear that it will tolerate torture, even by men and women in American uniforms. And why send prisoners to places like Syria and Saudi Arabia, if not for the brutal treatment Americans are supposed to abhor? The senior official said it saved manpower and money, compared with keeping them in the United States or at American-run prisons abroad. The idea that this is a productivity initiative would be comical if the issue were not so tragically serious.

No rational person would deny the need to hunt down terrorists, to try to extract lifesaving information from them and to punish them, legally. But the C.I.A. has sent prisoners to countries where they were tortured for months and then either disappeared or were released because they knew nothing. The guilty ones can never be brought to justice - not after they have been illegally imprisoned and even tortured.

American officials have offered pretzel logic to defend these practices. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said that if the United States sends a prisoner abroad, then our nation's constitution no longer applies.

This is just the sort of thinking that led to the horrible abuses at prisons in Iraq, where the Army is now holding more Iraqi prisoners than ever: nearly 9,000. The military says it's doing a better job of screening these prisoners than in the days when a vast majority of Iraqi prisoners were, in fact, innocent of any wrongdoing. But there is still a shortage of translators to question prisoners, the jails are dangerously overcrowded, and there's never been a full and honest public accounting of the rules the American prison guards now follow.

Let's be clear about this: Any prisoner of the United States is protected by American values. That cannot be changed by sending him to another country and pretending not to notice that he's being tortured.