The promise of imminent release for four British detainees held at the notorious US prison at Guantanamo Bay is obviously welcome, but it is only a tiny exception in the surge of bad news from the Bush team on the human-rights front. The first few days of the new year have produced two shocking exposures already.
One is the revelation that the administration sees the US not just as a self-appointed global policeman, but also as the world's prison warder. It is thinking of building jails in foreign countries, mainly ones with grim human-rights records, to which it can secretly transfer detainees (unconvicted by any court) for the rest of their lives -- a kind of global gulag beyond the scrutiny of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or any other independent observers or lawyers.
The other horror is the light shone on the views of Alberto Gonzales, the White House nominee for attorney-general. At his Senate confirmation hearings last week he was revealed to be a man who not only refuses to rule out torture under any circumstances but also, in his capacity as White House counsel over the past few years, chaired several meetings at which specific interrogation techniques were discussed.
As Senator Edward Kennedy pointed out, and Gonzales did not deny, they included the threat of burial alive and water-boarding, under which the detainee is strapped to a board, forcibly pushed under water, wrapped in a wet towel, and made to believe he could drown.
Since its establishment after Sept. 11, the US camp for foreigners at Guantanamo Bay has become a beacon of unfreedom, a kind of grisly competitor to the Statue of Liberty in the shopfront of authentic American images. The trickle of releases of prisoners from its cages has brought direct testimony of the horrors which go on there.
So it is no wonder that the Bush administration would like to find less visible places to hold prisoners, and keep them there forever so that they cannot tell the world.
The Guantanamo prisoners are held by the Department of Defense, but under the new scheme most foreign detainees are expected to be in the hands of the CIA, which submits to less congressional scrutiny and offers the Red Cross no access. They include hundreds of people who have been arrested in recent weeks in Fallujah and other Iraqi cities.
According to the Washington Post, one proposal is to have the US build new prisons in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Officials of those countries would run the prisons, and would have to allow the State Department to "monitor human rights compliance."
It is a laughable proposition, since the whole purpose of the exercise is to minimize scrutiny. CIA agents would have the right to question the detainees, with or without the aid of foreign interrogators, as they already do at other off-limits prisons at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, on ships at sea, in Jordan and Egypt, and at Diego Garcia.
The US policy of lending detainees to other countries' jailers and torturers, known as "rendition," began during the "war on drugs" as a way of arresting alleged Latin American narco-barons and softening them up for trial in the US. It has expanded enormously under the "war on terror." As one CIA officer told the Washington Post, "the whole idea has become a corruption of renditions. It's not rendering to justice. It's kidnapping."