This morning’s papers feature a story from the Washington Post
on the CIA’s practice of holding terrorism suspects in “black sites” or
undocumented prisons in foreign countries, where they are kept secret
both from American oversight and from the judicial systems in the host
countries. The extracts in the Australian papers are devastating
enough, but it’s worth reading the full story on the Postwebsite.

It’s amazing on several levels: an appalling story of human rights
abuse, a cloak-and-dagger espionage yarn, and a classic of bureaucratic
inertia. Nobody planned it to happen this way; the CIA just found
itself with more and more prisoners, mostly of limited intelligence
value, that it didn’t know what to do with. It didn’t want to release
them, but it couldn’t transfer them to legitimate prisons, or even to
the defence department, for fear of attracting judicial scrutiny that
would unravel the whole system.

As one former intelligence officer is quoted as saying, “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

The “black sites” are maintained on the basis of an order by President
Bush, made shortly after the 11 September attacks, that gave the CIA
“permission to kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in
the world.” But that would not save them from illegality under the laws
of the host countries – hence the need for extreme secrecy.

The background to these revelations, plus a story the same day in the New York Times
about internal dissent on defence department interrogation techniques,
is a struggle between congress and the administration over rules for
the treatment of detainees. Last month, the US Senate voted 90-9 for an amendment
that would impose minimum standards of humane treatment. It still has
to be agreed to by the House of Representatives, and the White House is
determined to at least exempt the CIA from any restrictions.

Those who argue that terrorists aren’t entitled to such concern were memorably answered by John McCain,
the amendment’s sponsor: “The enemy we fight has no respect for human
life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t
about who they are. This is about who we are.”