More “Outsourcing” of Torture?

Last night former President Bill Clinton, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, challenged the current administration’s “defense of torture.” And today the New York Times gave us our near-daily reminder as to how timely this issue still is. According to the Times, during the last four years — and mostly from 2006 to the present — the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan has transferred more than two hundred “foreign fighters” to the custody of intelligence agencies of their home countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Times reports these transfers to be at least in part a result of the Bush administration’s realization that its Guantanamo detention program has been a “strategic failure.” True enough. But these transfers are to countries which themselves — according to the U.S. Department of State, as well as many human rights organizations — have very long histories of detainee torture and abuse.

The Times article raises several other troubling questions:

  • Department of Defense (DoD) rules already allow the military to take two full weeks after taking a detainee into custody before notifying the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Times reports, however, that this period of secret detention can be extended by the Secretary of Defense or his “representative.” For how many detainees has this been extended? And for how long? According to the Times, DoD refuses to say.
  • The article reports that before transfer DoD obtains “assurances” that the detainees will be treated “humanely” by their home country. But similar “diplomatic assurances” obtained in the context of the CIA’s rendition program have proven unreliable, and there is no suggestion by the Times that DoD — or anyone else in the U.S. government, for that matter — even attempts to follow up on the actual treatment these detainees receive after their return home. How are these detainees in fact treated upon return to their home countries?
  • The article also reports that, before transfer, the U.S. government requires additional “assurances” regarding these detainees — that is, that they will not “simply be released.” It’s one thing, however, to turn detainees over to the custody of another country for investigation and prosecution under that nation’s laws, through procedures that meet international standards of fairness. It’s quite another to condition the transfers upon a commitment from the other government that they will continue to be detained, whether or not they are ever prosecuted. How many of these detainees have been prosecuted in fair proceedings by their home governments? For the rest, how many are still detained even without prosecution — and what is the legal basis for that detention?

All in all, this is just one more aspect of the administration’s detention policies that cry out for answers, and an accounting. It’s no solution to the problems we’ve created for ourselves through unlawful and inhumane detention policies to “outsource” such policies to others.
Before President Clinton spoke last night, Senator John Kerry earlier in the day had said, “President Obama and Vice President Biden will shut down Guantanamo, respect the Constitution, and make clear once and for all, the United States of America does not torture, not now, not ever.” Let’s hope we hear the same next week in Minneapolis.


Published on August 28, 2008


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