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Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2005/ 14 Kislev, 5766

Nat Hentoff

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Testing Condi | During the first stages of the Secretary of State's European visit, the headline in the influential German publication, Der Spiegel, was: "Does anyone believe Condoleezza Rice?" Despite the increasing reports in the European press of CIA planes crisscrossing Europe, she repeatedly said, "The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture."

Moreover, she declined to comment on charges by many journalists, including this one, that the CIA on its own has a network of secret interrogation centers in Europe. Yet, on Dec. 5, Brian Ross reported on ABC News that Al Qaeda suspects in two secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe had been cleared out before Rice's arrival, and the suspects were moved to a new hidden CIA facility in the North African desert.

Also, while Rice repeatedly insisted that the United States does not engage in or condone torture, the newspaper, Financial Times Deutschland, echoed concerns of many Europeans: "It remains unclear exactly what definition Washington uses for torture."

Later, however, in Kiev, the Ukraine, Rice made a surprising (and rather startling) statement that American obligations under the U.N. Convention against torture "extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside the United States."

These obligations forbid the "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners," but officials in the Bush administration have long maintained that these restrictions do not apply to detainees held by the United States outside of U.S. territory. As Glenn Kessler reported in the Dec. 7 Washington Post: "CIA interrogators in the overseas sites have been permitted to use interrogation techniques prohibited by the U.N. convention or by U.S. military law." And, indeed, Vice President Dick Cheney has been pressing hard to prevent the passage of Republican Sen. John McCain's amendment to ban our forces from engaging in cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment anywhere in the world.

Nonetheless, Rice's unexpected statement in Kiev mollified the concerns of some European politicians and officials; and even Tom Malinkowski of Human Rights Watch said, "it appears to be a significant shift and a welcome one." But other human rights investigators here and in Europe remain skeptical. They ask how the Bush administration defines "cruel, inhuman and degrading."

For instance, CIA head Porter Goss has testified that waterboarding — which makes a prisoner believe he is drowning — is OK.

But taking Rice's clarification at face value, how then does the Bush administration justify the continued existence of the CIA's secret interrogation centers around the world?

There is no disclosure of who is in those cages and what is being done to them. If the secretary of state is to maintain her credibility, shouldn't she call for an end to these "black sites," as they are called in the whispered language of Washington insiders?

And if what she says about the utter lawfulness of American policy on detainees is true, what of the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" by which suspected terrorists are kidnapped in various countries and transferred for interrogation to countries cited by our own State Department reports for torturing their prisoners? In the face of mounting statements by prisoners finally released after being tortured in CIA renditions, does she continue to deny these violations of international and U.S. law?

But let us suppose that what she said in Kiev does mean a major change in U.S. policy — although the president's automated press secretary, Scott McClellan, faithfully says this has been our policy all along. If it is a change, is there to be no punishment for those Americans throughout the chain of command who have been complicit in these CIA renditions? And what of the abuses, including torture and death, in our own interrogation centers and the "ghost prisoners" in CIA secret cells?

As a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, the American Civil Liberties Union, on Oct. 24, made public new and previously released autopsy and death reports of prisoners in American facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these "detainees" died while they were being interrogated; and the ACLU points out "the documents show that 'detainees were hooded, gagged, strangled, beaten with blunt objects'" and subjected to other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

If Congress ever conducts truly independent investigations of these and other such reports, I would strongly suggest the record include the carefully documented report by Jane Mayer in the Nov. 14 New Yorker: "A Deadly Interrogation: Can the CIA legally kill a prisoner?" She quotes Cheney on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2001: "It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal." Her article describes some of these brutal means.

After reading the New Yorker article and summaries of the autopsy reports, I believe it is fair to ask — concerning how this administration defines American values in our crucial war against terrorists: Which of the two Rices is to be believed?

If we are to win this fateful war of ideas, Congress must clear the air.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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