Friday, September 08, 2006

"Ghost Detainees" Materializing

On Wednesday, President Bush gave a major address in the East Room of the White House before families of 9/11 victims. In the speech, the President acknowledged that some suspected terrorists had been held and interrogated in secret locations, as the Washington Post first reported in November of last year. He announced that fourteen of these suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh, both of whom are believed to have been among the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, have been transferred to Guantanamo in preparation for trial. He also announced that he was sending to Congress a plan to create military tribunals that would comply with the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

I've been intending to post something about this speech since first reading it Wednesday afternoon, but it has been difficult to find time to blog until now. So, with apologies for not being very timely, I'll offer a few comments here.

First, some credit should be given to President Bush for shifting the frame away from the "war on terror" toward bringing criminals to justice. Six times in the speech the President spoke of bringing terrorists to justice. Of course, there were over a dozen references to the "war on terror," but this is progress nonetheless. More importantly, the desire to "bring those responsible for these crimes to justice" now seems to mean in the president's vernacular what it means to most of us: seeking convictions in an actual trial (although the legislation the president sent to Congress to remedy the defects that Hamdan found in the military tribunals appears seriously defective).

Why is this a positive development? When President Bush has spoken of bringing terrorists to justice in the past, he has clearly had an expansive definition of what that might entail. For example, in the first presidential debate with John Kerry (on September 30, 2004), he said, "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein--I mean bin Laden. He's isolated. Seventy-five percent of his people have been brought to justice." The first four terrorism suspects tried by the United States under the system of military tribunals struck down in the Hamdan case were charged just six weeks before President Bush made this statement. (One of the suspects, in fact, was Salim Ahmed Hamdan.) None of the cases had been decided by the end of September. When the president spoke of bringing terrorists to justice in the presidential debate (and in other similar utterances), he was clearly talking about killing or "disappearing" them.

There are other aspects of the President's speech that are, to put it mildly, rather problematic. Consider this passage, for example:

It's important for Americans and others across the world to understand the kind of people held at Guantanamo. These aren't common criminals, or bystanders accidentally swept up on the battlefield--we have in place a rigorous process to ensure those held at Guantanamo Bay belong at Guantanamo. Those held at Guantanamo include suspected bomb makers, terrorist trainers, recruiters and facilitators, and potential suicide bombers. They are in our custody so they cannot murder our people.

Unfortunately, there is more falsehood than truth in this statement. Many of the prisoners who have been brought to Guantanamo over the years have been released without charges. (In July 2005, the State Department reported that a total of 242 detainees had been released from Guantanamo. Some were released into the custody of other states, but those states in many instances freed their prisoners.) As I wrote in February of this year, a review of detainee records by the National Journal found that "contrary to frequent assertions that the prison at Guantanamo holds only the worst terrorists--those who would be killing Americans in Afghanistan or plotting the next 9/11 if freed--most are victims of mistaken identity or are, at worst, low-level Taliban or Al Qaeda soldiers with no knowledge of operational issues."

There is also a problem with this statement in the President's speech:

I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it--and I will not authorize it.

The problem here--as some pointed out when Condoleezza Rice went to Europe last December and said "the United States does not condone torture"--is that the Bush administration's definition of "torture" is, well, tortured. Not only has the United States used torture (by any reasonable definition of the term), it has almost certainly tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the individuals who was transferred to Guantanamo for trial.

It's a good thing that President Bush has admitted the existence of the CIA's secret detention program, that "ghost detainees" have been transferred to a known location, and that trials may soon begin for some of those suspected of plotting the 9/11 attacks. What is not good is that we continue to hear some of the same old falsehoods from the President.