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Friday, July 11, 2008

The Red Cross and torture: Time to end promises of confidentiality? (Updated)

The New York Times today has a preview of New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.” According to the article, the book cites a secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross concluding that the interrogation methods the C.I.A. used on some detainees constituted torture. The report was given to the C.I.A., which shared it with President Bush and Secretary Rice.

One key paragraph in the story:

Bernard Barrett of the International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on the book except to say that the committee “regrets that any information has been attributed to us” because it believes its work is more effective when confidential.

The ICRC has long maintained that it needs confidentiality to do its work. The reasoning is explained here in a recent interview with the organization's deputy director of operations. I would not say that the group's position is entirely unreasonable, but recent history has clearly shown that the campaign against torture--for example, that used by the United States since September 11, 2001--is much more effective when people worldwide actually know that torture is being used rather than being kept in blissful ignorance. Moreover, the confidentiality that is actually being protected is not usually that of the victims, but that of the government that is doing the torturing. In other words, governments will agree to let the Red Cross visit facilities as long as they can be assured that the truth will not get out; and there are some famous cases, such as the Red Cross visits to the "model" Nazi concentration camp Terezin in Czechoslovakia during World War II, where governments have succeeded in pulling the wool over the organization's eyes.

Perhaps it is time for the ICRC to reconsider its policy.

Update (July 12): The Washington Post today has more details from Mayer's new book, including the "revelation" (I put that in quotes because anyone paying attention already knew this basic fact) that a C.I.A. analyst had told the White House back in 2002 that up to a third of the Guantanamo detainees were there by mistake. According to the Post article:

But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees' cases, author Jane Mayer writes in "The Dark Side," scheduled for release next week.

"There will be no review," the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. "The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it."

There's more:

According to Mayer, the analyst estimated that a full third of the camp's detainees were there by mistake. When told of those findings, the top military commander at Guantanamo at the time, Major Gen. Michael Dunlavey, not only agreed with the assessment but suggested that an even higher percentage of detentions -- up to half -- were in error. Later, an academic study by Seton Hall University Law School concluded that 55 percent of detainees had never engaged in hostile acts against the United States, and only 8 percent had any association with al-Qaeda.

This makes it absolutely incredible that anyone, least of all presidential candidate John McCain (not to mention members of the U.S. Supreme Court such as A. Scalia), would question the right of habeas corpus for the Guantanamo prisoners. But as we know, they did, in the strongest possible terms, and the court decision was only 5-4. That's one more reason why issues like Obama's position on the FISA bill really do matter: We are walking the fine line of abandoning the Bill of Rights or reinterpreting it out of existence.

Waterboarding afterthoughts: Many readers of this blog have probably seen, or heard about, Christopher Hitchens being waterboarded as part of his preparation of an article about torture in Vanity Fair. All I can say to my friends on the left is that I hope they viewed the video dispassionately and for informational purposes only--even if they might like to see Christopher subjected to "harsh interrogation" until he admits that the invasion of Iraq was wrong.

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