Secretary Rice's Rendition

Editorial

New York Times

Decmber 7, 2005

It was a sad enough measure of how badly the Bush administration has damaged its moral standing that the secretary of state had to deny that the president condones torture before she could visit some of the most reliable American allies in Europe. It was even worse that she had a hard time sounding credible when she did it.

Of course, it would have helped if Condoleezza Rice was actually in a position to convince the world that the United States has not, does not and will not torture prisoners. But there's just too much evidence that this has happened at the hands of American interrogators or their proxies in other countries. Vice President Dick Cheney is still lobbying to legalize torture at the C.I.A.'s secret prisons, and to block a law that would reimpose on military prisons the decades-old standard of decent treatment that Mr. Bush scrapped after 9/11.

Pesky facts keep getting in the way of Ms. Rice's message. Yesterday, the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that Ms. Rice had acknowledged privately that the United States should not have abducted a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, who says he was sent to Afghanistan and mistreated for five months before the Americans realized that they had the wrong man and let him go.

Mr. Masri tried to appear at a press conference in Washington yesterday to discuss a lawsuit filed in Virginia on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, a suit alleging wrongful imprisonment and torture - but the United States government has refused to allow him into the country.

At issue is the practice of extraordinary rendition. When a government captures someone really dangerous, like a terrorist leader, who cannot be charged under that government's own laws, it sends him to another country where authorities are willing to charge the suspect or at least can get away with locking him up indefinitely without charges.

It's been going on for decades, infrequently and selectively, but the United States is reported to have stepped it up since 9/11 and violated international law by sending suspects to places where it knows they will be tortured. Recently, European governments expressed outrage at reports that some detainees were held at secret C.I.A. prisons in Europe.

Ms. Rice, like other American officials, will not comment on these reports. But before leaving Washington on Monday, she read a statement implying that if there were any secret prisons out there, the host countries knew about them. She rather bluntly warned that European countries who want American intelligence had better not betray any secrets.

Certainly, some of Europe's shock at the news of the C.I.A. camps is political theater aimed at the widely anti-American European public. But that doesn't make it any less disturbing that the United States government seems to have lost its ability to distinguish between acts that may occur sub rosa in some exceptional, critical situations and the basic rules of proper international behavior.

Ms. Rice said Monday that rendition had been used to lock up some really dangerous bad guys, like Carlos the Jackal and Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But both men were charged in courts, put on trial, convicted and sentenced. That's what most American think when they hear talk about "bringing the terrorists to justice" - not predawn abductions, blindfolded prisoners on plane rides and years of torture in distant lands without any public reckoning.