Monday, Jun 25, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Secret prisons, torture - what is America becoming?


Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


THE CIA is being blasted in Europe on two fronts. The first is at a trial in Milan, Italy, based on the agency's practice of "extraordinary rendition." The second, related to the first, is a report by the Council of Europe revealing secret prisons the agency maintained in Poland and Romania.

Neither the rendition - moving CIA prisoners from one country to another where they might be questioned by interrogators prepared to use torture - nor secret prisons outside the United States, are new. What is new are several other elements. The first and most important is that the populations of the countries involved, and their governments and the international community, are no longer sympathetic to U.S. policy.

These practices used to take place in a Cold War setting. In that context, even if the political authorities of a country were not necessarily in favor of what was taking place, the intelligence services were ready to collaborate with the CIA and keep these matters out of sight.

This started to change with the end of the Cold War. The 9/11 attack on the United States restored some of the inter-intelligence service cooperation that made rendition and secret prisons possible, given the sense that the United States and country "X" were pulling together in the war on terrorism.

What soured the relationships with the other governments and intelligence services was the expansion by the Bush Administration of the so-called war on terrorism to include the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

America's erstwhile allies were ready to help combat the people who attacked us on 9/11. But they, like most Americans now, realized that the administration's false premises for the Iraq war - Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the absence of a link between Saddam Hussein's government and al-Qaeda - didn't hold water or perhaps were deliberate deceptions. They began to disassociate themselves from U.S. policies.

When those policies were anathema to the countries concerned - detention without trial, moving people from country to country with no legal mandate, handing prisoners over to security services that would torture them - America's allies really began to jump ship on their previous relationship with the CIA.

And so, in Milan on Friday began a trial in which 25 CIA officers, one U.S. Air Force colonel, and former officers of the Italian Intelligence and Military Security Service are charged with the 2003 kidnapping of a Muslim cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, so that he could be shipped off to Egypt. The cleric says he was held for four years and tortured.

Needless to say, the CIA officers are not now in Milan and will not be extradited by the United States to face trial in Italy. Nonetheless, the trial and the publicity which surround it make both the Italian and the American governments uncomfortable. At the very least the trial will make future such intelligence cooperation difficult if not impossible.

Various Italian authorities have made it clear that they hold no brief for terrorism and are fine with prosecuting Mr. Nasr if he is believed to have committed a crime under Italian law. What they find abhorrent is a foreign power - the United States - kidnapping him on Italian soil and then transporting him out of the country to be interrogated and imprisoned outside of the Italian judicial system.

A second pot boiling in Europe is a report released Friday by the Council of Europe, a 46-nation human rights monitoring organization. It alleges that the CIA ran secret prisons in Poland and Romania from 2003 to 2005 in which prisoners from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries were held. The Polish and Romanian governments have so far denied the existence of the prisons.

A third report was released last Wednesday in the United States by six human rights groups - including Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Human Rights Watch - claiming that American authorities have secretly detained and imprisoned some 39 people without releasing even their names.

The Bush Administration's stance is that this kind of stuff is being done in the name of the war on terrorism and that it is therefore acceptable, in spite of its clear variance from U.S. principles of justice.

It takes me back to the days of working in U.S. embassies with repressive governments that showed little respect for the rule of law. These were countries such as Burundi, apartheid-era South Africa, Bulgaria, Zaire, and the Central African Republic. In those places, the United States tried hard to keep tabs on political prisoners - people whom the host governments detained, locked up, and frequently never brought to trial.

In many cases, the American embassy, the prisoners' families, and local human rights groups - if there were any - were the only ones trying to monitor these people so that they would not just disappear from view, perhaps to die.

The idea that it is now the United States doing such things, and that it is American human rights groups who are working with the families and friends of people to see that they don't just disappear into a CIA jail in Poland or Romania, or into the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, or, perhaps worst of all, into some prison in Iraq or Afghanistan, never to be seen again, is painful and shameful.

What are we doing? What are we becoming?

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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