Two front-page New York Times (August 25, 2009) stories appeared concerning our treatment of alleged terrorists and past practices of torture. First, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the naming of a special prosecutor to investigate the long-ignored, long-suppressed, and now much redacted Inspector General's report of the Central Intelligence Agency's physical and mental abuses of detainees. (May we say, "torture?")
The news emphasized the attorney general's agreement with the president's oft-repeated insistence that he was unwilling to investigate and prosecute past misdeeds that occurred under the previous administration. But Holder stated he was compelled to "follow the law" and appoint a prosecutor. Attorneys general are not noted for their courage in acting contrary to the president's wishes. Perhaps Holder is signaling that the president wants us to know that his heart is in the right place.
But more consistent with President Obama's zigs and zags of late, the Times's second story reported that the administration will maintain the Bush-Cheney policy of sending terrorism suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation. The Times quickly added the administration's press release, stating its pledge "to closely monitor their treatment to ensure they are not tortured." Apparently, the FBI will do the monitoring -- which should be interesting.
The qualification of monitoring is at odds with the president's statement in 2007, just after he announced his candidacy for president. We must, he then insisted, "end the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off counties, ... [and] of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law." Several months ago, the president announced that the secret network of CIA-run prisons would end, but the news now is to continue the harsh interrogations in foreign-run prisons. A distinction with no difference.
Common sense is in order here: why bother with the time and expense of dispatching suspects to third countries for further interrogation -- if not because we prefer that others dirty their hands, and not our folks. If they are going to be properly questioned, why not in the United States? What will we monitor abroad -- Syrians serving coffee to their prisoners, or Egyptians serving tea? Must we continue to use unemployed eastern European secret police from the Communist past to facilitate our interrogations?
The administration's obvious contradiction probably will be ignored by reporters covering the White House or the Department of Justice. Will they dare ask such questions in the face of their imagined fears of losing "access?" The president should be challenged. His campaign words on torture are empty, rendered meaningless with his "new" policy on rendition.
Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate and other writings.