The Prison Puzzle

Editorial

New York Times

November 3, 2005

It's maddening. Why does the Bush administration keep forcing policies on the United States military that endanger Americans wearing the nation's uniform - policies that the military does not want, that do not work and that violate standards upheld by the civilized world for decades?

When the Bush administration rewrote the rules for dealing with prisoners after 9/11, needlessly scrapping the Geneva Conventions and American law, it ignored the objections of lawyers for the armed services. Now, heedless of the lessons of Abu Ghraib, the civilians are once again running over the people in uniform. Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt reported yesterday in The Times that the administration is blocking the Pentagon from adopting the language of the Geneva Conventions to set rules for handling prisoners in the so-called war on terror.

Senior military lawyers want these standards, as do some Defense and State Department officials outside the inner circle. They say the abuse and torture of prisoners has reduced America's standing with its allies and taken away its moral high ground with the rest of the world. They also know that it endangers any American soldiers who are captured.

The rigid ideologues blocking this reform say the Geneva Conventions banning inhumane treatment are too vague. Which part of no murder, torture, mutilation, cruelty or humiliation do they not understand? The restrictions are a problem only if you want to do such abhorrent things and pretend they are legal. That is why the Bush administration tossed out the rules after 9/11.

It's a terrifying thing when the people who devote their lives to protecting our national security feel that the civilians who oversee their operations are out of control. Dana Priest reports in The Washington Post that even the Central Intelligence Agency's clandestine operators are getting nervous about the network of secret prisons they have around the world - including, of all places, at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe.

We're not na´ve enough to believe that if the C.I.A. nabs a Qaeda operative who knows where a ticking bomb is hidden, that terrorist will emerge unbruised from his interrogation. Extraordinary circumstances are different from general policies that allow foot soldiers and even innocent bystanders to be swept up in messy, uncontrolled and probably fruitless detentions. Ms. Priest reports that of the more than 100 prisoners sent by the C.I.A. to its "black site" camps, only 30 are considered major terrorism suspects, and some have presumably been kept so long that their information is out of date. The rest have limited intelligence value, according to The Post, and many of them have been subjected to the odious United States practice of shipping prisoners to countries like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco and pretending that they won't be tortured.

Like so many of the most distressing stories these days - the outing of Valerie Wilson and questions about the intelligence on Iraq also come to mind - this one circles right back to Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Mr. Cheney, a prime mover behind the attempts to legalize torture, is now leading a back-room fight to block a measure passed by the Senate, 90 to 9, that would impose international standards and American laws on the treatment of prisoners. Mr. Cheney wants a different version, one that would make the C.I.A.'s camps legal, although still hidden, and authorize the use of torture by intelligence agents. Mr. Bush is threatening to veto the entire military budget over this issue.

When his right-hand man, Lewis Libby, resigned after being indicted on charges relating to team Cheney's counterattack against Joseph Wilson, Mr. Cheney replaced him with David Addington, who helped draft the infamous legalized-torture memo of 2002. Mr. Addington is now blocking or weakening proposed changes to the prison policies. The Times said he had berated a Pentagon aide who had briefed him and Mr. Libby recently on the draft of the new military standards for handling prisoners. (The indictment of Mr. Libby said he had done the same thing to a C.I.A. briefer in 2003 when agency officials questioned the intelligence on Iraq.)

The Times reports that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, favor changing the detention policies. So we can only conclude that President Bush has decided to expend the minimal clout remaining to his beleaguered administration in a fight to put the full faith and credit of the United States behind the concept of torture. After all, the sign on Dick Cheney's door says he is the vice president.