Priest on the CIA’s Secret Prisons

Dana Priest has an excellent front-page article in today’s Washington Post on the network of secret prisons being operated worldwide by the CIA: CIA holds terror suspects in secret prisons.

I consider this story truly horrible. I’ve said before, and will say again, that this is far and away the worst thing done by the Bush administration.

While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, say officials familiar with the program, could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.

But the revelations of widespread prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S. military — which operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress — have increased concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human rights groups about the opaque CIA system. Those concerns escalated last month, when Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody.

Although the CIA will not acknowledge details of its system, intelligence officials defend the agency’s approach, arguing that the successful defense of the country requires that the agency be empowered to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists for as long as necessary and without restrictions imposed by the U.S. legal system or even by the military tribunals established for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.

The secret detention system was conceived in the chaotic and anxious first months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the working assumption was that a second strike was imminent.

Since then, the arrangement has been increasingly debated within the CIA, where considerable concern lingers about the legality, morality and practicality of holding even unrepentant terrorists in such isolation and secrecy, perhaps for the duration of their lives. Mid-level and senior CIA officers began arguing two years ago that the system was unsustainable and diverted the agency from its unique espionage mission.

“We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand strategy,” said one former senior intelligence officer who is familiar with the program but not the location of the prisons. “Everything was very reactive. That’s how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don’t say, ‘What are we going to do with them afterwards?’ ”

The number of prisoners being held so far is limited, we are led to believe, perhaps about 100. But the size of the program isn’t the point. It could be one prisoner, and it would still be shockingly wrong.

The United States cannot engage in this sort of behavior as a matter of policy and remain the United States. Operating secret facilities where people are detained with no charges, kept indefinitely away from any outside contact, tortured, and occasionally killed is a blatant violation of the most fundamental principles on which this country was founded, and from which our government derives its legitimacy.

By engaging in this sort of behavior, George Bush is doing what neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein nor any number of former, current, or future enemies could ever hope to accomplish: he is destroying this country.

I don’t mean that as a metaphor. It is the literal truth.

5 Responses to “Priest on the CIA’s Secret Prisons”

  1. Steve Says:

    This issue is what marks Bush as the most immoral president of my lifetime. Our system of government is supposed to be able to stop such shocking depravity. It never surprises me that individual humans will turn to evil (such as the grunts in the CIA actually committing the torture).

    However, the fact that the president condones this behavior and the congress hasn’t (yet) put a stop to it is what has probably driven me from the Republican party for the rest of my life. Sure, there are good men like John McCain in the Republican party, but it’s the immoral zealots who are in charge.

  2. ethan-p Says:

    Steve — I fear that horrible politics controlling partisan policies is the way it goes. You may have a difficult time finding a party who isn’t controlled by political BS.

    I suppose that this is neither a defense nor an indictment of the Rebublican party since this is so standard.

    Politics are petty.

  3. philipc Says:

    I have a pair of dilemmas regarding this. The first is that I am angrier at the democratic party than with the Republicans: the cynical, hurt side of me wants to see them ridiculed and dragged through the mud, because they simply do not deserve to rule in the corridors of power – simply because they did nothing to stop the dissolution of any decency there may have been in our foreign policy. And yet they are, ideologically speaking,so much closer to me and the last wall of protection against complete destruction of the U.S. ideal.

    The second is that while we are shocked and indignant about these prisons, why do we so opportunistically act so indignant about the outing of Valerie Plame, who works for this organization? Democrats howl at this “treasonous affront to our national security”. Yeah right, like she’s some kind of martyr! Some good-old-fashioned down-home family woman standing by the flag. Who are we kidding here? Please! let’s not rally around this indictment thing. In the end it was one evil ideologue exposing another nefarious spook. They should be made to mud-wrestle each other in front of the world.

  4. ymatt Says:

    Valerie herself is not immensely important. It’s only in the larger context of the case for war and the lengths to which the white house quashed opposition that her case is important. As much as I agree that detainment without trial and torture are horrific things for our government to condone, openness of government is every bit as important because it’s this which allows us as a people to make sure our government doesn’t do these kinds of things. To me, the worst thing about the current administration is that they’ve decided that they know best and need to protect us from the decision-making process. That’s not a democratic republic, that’s a monarchy.

  5. Steve Says:

    The torture scandal has been remarkably open to the public despite the fact that the party responsible for the torture is the majority in all three branches of government.

    It seems the FOIA is one of the better laws we have on the books.

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