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Why Condi roiled Europe

December 09, 2005|Chris Mullin

MANY AMERICANS will be puzzled, and perhaps even a little hurt, that Europeans reacted with such incredulity to this week's denial by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the U.S. has been ghosting suspected terrorist prisoners to countries where they are likely to be tortured.

Let me explain. First, Rice's statement appeared to have been very carefully lawyered. On the face of it, an assertion that the U.S. has not transported anyone to a country "when we believe he will be tortured" looks pretty watertight. But "will be" is the key phrase. She should have said "may be."

Second, she said: "Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that the transferred persons will not be tortured." This is risible. Just how much weight should we attach to a piece of paper signed by a member of, say, the Egyptian, Syrian, Libyan or Moroccan security services promising that the suspect will not be tortured? Even a cursory knowledge of the human rights situation in the countries concerned suggests the answer is: not much.

Third, it has recently become apparent that many Americans have a different definition of torture than that which prevails in Europe -- and indeed in much of the rest of the world. Europeans have watched with incredulity what appears to be a serious debate in the United States about whether "waterboarding" (immersion just short of drowning) constitutes torture.

Fourth, Rice's protestations of innocence have to be matched against the known facts. There are witnesses. A small number of people have emerged alive from this secret gulag, and the stories they tell are wholly at odds with the bland assertions in her statement.

Fifth, if cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment isn't being applied, then what's it all about? Why has this vast, secret web been constructed, if not to ensure that whatever is happening takes place beyond the reach of U.S. law?

Finally, of course, some of us have long memories. We have been here before -- in Chile, El Salvador, Iran under the shah, Vietnam

In his book, "Decent Interval," about the final days of the Vietnam War, former CIA agent Frank Snepp recounts the fate of a high-level communist prisoner, Nguyen Van Tai. "Just before the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, a senior CIA official suggested it would be better if he disappeared. The South Vietnamese agreed. Tai was loaded into a plane and thrown out at 10,000 feet over the South China Sea."

I have no doubt that the truth about the secret prisons and the mistreatment of detainees will emerge in due course. Retired CIA agents will start writing their memoirs. There will be hearings in Congress, official breast-beating, promises that it will never happen again, perhaps even a resignation or two. Openness is one of the great strengths of American society.

The weakness, however, is that memories are short and, after 20 years, it happens all over again.

CHRIS MULLIN is a member of the British Parliament.

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