Using the 'T' word

Our view: A report by the International Committee of the Red Cross lifts the veil of secrecy from the torture of detainees in CIA prisons

March 17, 2009

Many Americans have long suspected the Bush administration wasn't being completely truthful about the interrogation techniques used to extract information from terrorist suspects captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials conceded some methods were "harsh," but they insisted no detainees were tortured or seriously mistreated.

Now a long-suppressed report by the International Committee of the Red Cross has surfaced to give the lie to those denials. The report's contents, presented to U.S. authorities in 2007 but made public only this week, describe in graphic detail officially sanctioned beatings, torture and abuse of prisoners in secret CIA prisons around the world that clearly violated U.S. and international law.

The ICRC investigators, who interviewed 14 "high value" detainees at Guantanamo in 2006, cited cases in which prisoners were soaked with water and forced to stand naked in icy cells for days at a time, or confined in coffin-like wooden boxes too small to stand up in.

Prisoners were deprived of sleep, food and medical care, punched, slapped or slammed into walls, and subjected to simulated drowning in a technique known as "waterboarding."

"The ill-treatment to which [prisoners] were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture," the ICRC stated flatly. Because the group is responsible for monitoring compliance with the Geneva Conventions, its findings, while confidential, have the force of law. Clearly, U.S. officials knew in 2007 that the outrages at Guantanamo constituted war crimes under international law.

Who is to be held accountable for these acts committed in the name of the American people? Notwithstanding former Vice President Dick Cheney's disgusting attempt over the weekend to paper over CIA misdeeds as vital to national security, denial is not an option.

President Barack Obama is understandably reluctant to launch a criminal investigation of the spy agency whose support he still badly needs, even after having repudiated the Bush administration's acquiescence in torture outlined in internal Justice Department memos released last week. But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is vowing to get to the bottom of the matter in public hearings, and his inquiry need not turn into a partisan witch hunt if properly handled.

President Obama has said his administration won't countenance the torture of prisoners. But finding out exactly how the nation went so wrong over the last eight years is an essential first step toward ensuring it won't happen again.

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