Amnesty International secretary general Irene Khan’s scorching description of Guantánamo as “the gulag of our times” has provoked a new White House line: Stories of torture and mistreatment of terror detainees are the fabrications of repatriated ex-prisoners who “hate America” and are trained to lie, as George W. Bush declared at a May 31 press conference.
Up until now the Administration’s response to its multifront human-rights scandal has been characterized by the defiant evasions of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Now, the line has shifted to outright deception. Fact: If the testimony of ex-prisoners figures significantly in the story, it’s because the Administration has persistently blocked human rights investigators’ access to current detainees at Bagram, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Fact: AI’s report is primarily based not on ex-prisoner interviews but on sources like the Pentagon’s own Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations and court-martial testimony.
For three and a half years, AI, Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups, frustrated by official stonewalling, have maintained a cautious approach to torture allegations. It has taken repeated breaches in the Administration’s wall of secrecy–through investigative reporting, the ACLU’s FOIA requests and court orders–to document the patterns Amnesty describes. And scarcely a week goes by without further supporting evidence. Just days before Bush’s remarks, the New York Times detailed cover-ups in the sadistic killings of two prisoners at Bagram. No sooner did Newsweek, under Pentagon pressure, retract its Koran-desecration story than reports of Koran desecrations emerged from the Defense Department’s own records. Lieut. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that he “never approved” the use of intensive sleep deprivation, guard dogs and excessive noise in interrogations at Abu Ghraib. Now the latest document cache obtained by the ACLU includes a memo over Sanchez’s signature, dated September 14, 2003, explicitly approving techniques for “significantly increasing the fear level in a detainee”–including (surprise!) sleep deprivation, noise and “presence of military working dogs.”
Bush may find Amnesty’s charges “absurd,” but the debate has already moved from whether the United States is a purveyor of torture to what to do about it. Slowly, instruments of legality and due process, within and outside the United States, are encircling US policy. In late May the United Nations Commission Against Torture ruled that Sweden violated the Convention Against Torture when it “rendered” asylum-seeker Ahmed Agiza to Egypt on a CIA flight. It is only a matter of time before the commission–to which the US is a signatory–turns to the United States itself. In Britain the Law Lords are preparing to consider whether evidence coerced through torture abroad is admissible in its courts. The same question now shadows Washington: Two doctors who examined American student Abu Ali, awaiting trial for allegedly plotting to assassinate Bush, have concluded that the young man was tortured in Saudi Arabia after his arrest.
Guantánamo’s hundreds do not compare with Stalin’s millions, but the gulag is a fair analogy–how else to describe an international network of cells and interrogation centers holding prisoners without charge, for indeterminate terms, beyond reach of any court? But Bush’s torture system and his obsession with secret executive authority are shaped by the contradictions of democracy: courts that won’t cooperate, legislators who ask questions, reporters who drag secrets into the light. Harnessing those forces–whether through Congressional committees, new legal actions or citizen protests–is today’s great task.