Our next president assures us that he will increase oversight of the CIA's methods of detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects in its "black sites." Does that mean the CIA can keep stocking those secret cells with ghost prisoners? If so, how transparent will this oversight by Congress and our federal courts be?
Will Obama administration oversight let us know who's being held and by what American rules of law? Will the Geneva Conventions, embedded in one of our laws, be the standard for interrogations? And will the Bush administration rule continue that whatever "alternative interrogation methods" are allowed must be kept secret lest terrorists be trained to deal with them?
I find it troubling that Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden of the Intelligence Committee, a stalwart Bill of Rights defender - while calling for "legal, humane and noncoercive" CIA techniques - refused to say "whether CIA techniques ought to be made public," according to the New York Times. Is this, if President-elect Barack Obama concurs, change we can believe in? And even California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has insisted that the CIA follow the Army Field Manual that bans torture, now is sort of backtracking, telling the New York Times: "I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible." But the Army Field Manual does not have that exception. She will chair the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Under Mr. Obama, will the CIA continue to have some of the special powers President Bush continually authorized? On Dec. 3, 12 retired generals representing three dozen retired military officers met with the president-elect's transition team to, as The Washington Post reported, "plead for a clean, unequivocal break with the Bush administration's interrogation, detention and rendition (kidnapping suspects to be tortured in other countries) policies." Said one of them, Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, who served as a Navy inspector general: "Gradualism won't do. It's time for an abrupt change. That abrupt change will send a signal to the world that America is back." But an Obama adviser on intelligence policies, Roger Cressey, a counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, echoes a number of other Obama advisers: "He's going to take a very centrist approach to these issues. Whenever an administration swings too far on the spectrum left or right, we end up getting ourselves in deep trouble." However, since Mr. Obama, throughout his presidential campaign, often focused on restoring "American values," we are already in deep trouble for having jettisoned those values by operating "on the dark side," with the CIA the chief symbol of this transmogrification of those values.
I bring into the conversation Clive Stafford Smith, director of the British Reprieve organization. He and his other lawyers have represented prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; and he himself has done extensive research on CIA "black sites" and their ghost prisoners.
In the Nov. 2 New York Post, a customarily conservative newspaper, Mr. Smith notes that the much publicized Guantanamo detainees "represent fewer than 1 percent" of the thousands of prisoners held beyond the rule of law (by the Bush administration).
Along with reporters in Europe and here, Mr. Smith has found locations of some of these black holes. He cites, among other sites, Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Morocco and U.S. prison ships, harkening back to the hulks of Charles Dickens. And, he adds tellingly: "Not one of these ghost prisoners has ever encountered a human right, let alone a lawyer." What will Mr. Obama's "centrist" position be on these ghost prisoners? In my 2004 book, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance," I quoted Jack Cloonan, who, after 27 years in the FBI was then the senior agent on the FBI's Bin Laden Squad in New York.
"What are we going to do," he asked, "with these people in the (CIA secret prisons)?... Are they gonna disappear? Are they stateless?... What are we gonna explain to people when they start asking questions about where they are? Are they dead? Are they alive? What oversight does Congress have?" These questions have yet to be answered.
With what degree of "oversight" will Mr. Obama work with Congress and our federal courts to begin to answer these questions? The families of these ghost prisoners surely, and still desperately, want to know. Speaking of family values.
Also, who put them there? Not only up the chain of command in the CIA but also farther up in the Justice and Defense Departments and in the Oval Office? Vice President Dick Cheney and his longtime associate David Addington would be of great help in that regard. Will Mr. Obama urge the next Democrat-controlled Congress to subpoena them? And, at long last, will he transparently bring the CIA into our rule of law?
Nat Hentoff's column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.