Right-wing pundits usually blow steam out their ears and indignantly demand an apology whenever anyone compares our extralegal treatment of foreign prisoners to a gulag or to any of the less savory regimes of the last century. For example, last June Sen. Dick Durbin read a description of some of the practices at Guantanamo Bay:
"[D]etainees 'chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water,' or deprived of a bathroom, or kept in extreme heat or cold. One was found 'almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out.'... [H]e said that if you did not know these descriptions came from an FBI agent, you 'would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime ... that had no concern for human beings.'"
His point was that this kind of behavior is un-American, a blot on our good name, and a betrayal of everything we claim to stand for. The right-wing noise machine ignored his real point and loudly cried that Durbin was calling our brave troops Nazis. The White House called Durbin's remarks "reprehensible" and congressional Democrats cravenly abandoned Durbin leading him to eventually issue the apology the right demanded.
Durbin's remarks didn't happen in vacuum. The right-wing noise machine was already in a full froth over a similar comment issued by Amnesty International a few days earlier. In issuing its annual state-of-the-world report, Amnesty's general secretary, Irene Khan, referred to the network of off-shore prisons (some of them secret) as "the Gulag of our time." For a moment, it appeared that we might finally have a national debate on torture, the erosion of rights, and secret judicial processes introduced by the administration in the name of fighting terror. Sen. Joe Biden seemed to be headed in that direction when he said of Guantanamo and torture that "[t]his has become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world, and it is unnecessary to be in that position." With Durbin's humiliation, the moment passed. Besides, it was almost the Fourth of July and congress had important anti flag-burning amendments to debate.
Why bring this up today? The Washington Post has an important front page story today on the system of secret interrogation centers/prisons that the CIA has established around the world since 9/11.
The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement.
The secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.
The important point to notice is that this system is not the same is the military network of prisons that includes Abu Graib and the main facilities at Guantanamo Bay. This is a separate system that the administration has tried to keep secret. While congress gets to foot the bills for this system, they are allowed almost no information about it. It is this CIA network that Cheney has in mind when he pushes for a CIA exemption to American anti-torture laws.
The hidden global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. It depends on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic information about the system secret from the public, foreign officials and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions.
The existence and locations of the facilities -- referred to as "black sites" in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents -- are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country.
The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.
While the Defense Department has produced volumes of public reports and testimony about its detention practices and rules after the abuse scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA has not even acknowledged the existence of its black sites. To do so, say officials familiar with the program, could open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.
According to Google news, at least 500 news outlets have picked up this story since it came out in the Washington Post yesterday. It has been picked up by al Jazeera, the Arab Times of Saudi Arabia, the Daily News of Pakistan, and the Middle East Times of Egypt. As Sen. Biden pointed out last June, the best recruiting tool the terrorists have is the misbehavior of our own president and his administration.
We have two entire systems of extra-legal prison systems scattered around the globe. We hold people without due process, without charge, and often in secret. We both commit torture and arrange for others to do our torturing for us through extraordinary rendition. We hold people in secret without access to lawyers and with out notifying their families or governments. We use old Soviet prisons to do it. Is it still out of line to call this mess a Gulag?