Dec 1 2005

The Consequences of Covering Up

Washington Post withholds info on CIA prisons at government request

On November 2, the Washington Post carried an explosive front-page story about secret overseas prisons set up by the CIA for the interrogation of terrorism suspects. While the Post article, by reporter Dana Priest, gave readers plenty of details, it also withheld the most crucial information—the location of these secret prisons—at the request of government officials.

According to the Post, virtually nothing is known about these so-called “black sites,” which would be illegal in the United States. Given the abuses at Abu Ghraib and
Guantánamo Bay, news that the U.S. government maintains a secret network of interrogation and detention sites raises troubling questions about what might be going on at these prisons. The Post reports that “officials familiar with the program” acknowledge that disclosure of the secret prison 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.”

But the Washington Post did its part to minimize those potential risks, noting:

The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.

The two rationales for secrecy—from the “familiar” and “senior” officials—are not wholly incompatible. If the CIA’s counterterrorism methods are illegal and unpopular, exposure may well “disrupt” them. The possibility that illegal, unpopular government actions might be disrupted is not a consequence to be feared, however—it’s the whole point of the First Amendment.

It’s possible that countries that host secret CIA prisons might face retaliation; terrorist attacks in Spain and Britain appear to be connected to those countries’ involvement in the occupation of Iraq. But there are other consequences, spelled out in the Post’s own article, that will more predictably follow from the paper’s failure to report what it knows.

As the Post notes, there has been “widespread prisoner abuse” in U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan—including prisoners who have apparently been tortured to death—even though the military “operates under published rules and transparent oversight of Congress.”

Given that Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director Porter Goss are seeking to exempt the CIA from legislation that would prohibit “cruel and degrading treatment” of prisoners, and that CIA-approved “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” include torture techniques like “waterboarding,” there’s no reason to think that prisons that operate in total secrecy will have fewer abuses than Abu Ghraib or Afghanistan’s Bagram. Indeed, the article mentions a prisoner who froze to death after being stripped and chained to a concrete floor in a CIA prison in Afghanistan.

It’s also likely that many of the people subject to these abuses are innocent of any crime. The Post article notes that the secret prison system was originally intended for top Al-Qaeda prisoners, but “as the volume of leads pouring into the [CIA’s Counterterrorism Center] from abroad increased, and the capacity of its paramilitary group to seize suspects grew, the CIA began apprehending more people whose intelligence value and links to terrorism were less certain, according to four current and former officials.” That people whose links to crime are “less certain”—which is to say, people who might well be found innocent in a court of law—will be imprisoned and potentially tortured is a predictable consequence of secret prisons with no due process or access to outside observers.

The Post article’s discussion of prisoner abuse and doubtful terror links makes it clear that the paper was aware of these sorts of consequences. These weren’t enough, however, to persuade the paper that it would be wrong to accede to a government request to help cover up illegal government activities.

The paper should consider, then, that its decision not only puts at risk the secret prisoners, but also potentially endangers U.S. soldiers and civilians. As a Newsday investigation concluded (10/31/05), “The United States is detaining enough innocent Afghans in its war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that it is seriously undermining popular support for its presence in Afghanistan.” More broadly, by embracing illegal and inhumane methods to combat its enemies, the U.S. government fuels anti-American sentiments that are a vital resource for groups like Al-Qaeda. And allowing the government to conceal its actions on the grounds that they might otherwise be condemned is a very real threat to democracy itself.