Blood on Our Hands

Despite a last-minute hesitation by the Bush administration, the House may still take up provisions that would allow U.S. officials to ship terror suspects to countries that permit torture. If this language, attached to the larger intelligence reform bill, survives, it would shred the international treaty against torture that the United States signed on to 20 years ago. Beyond the diplomatic fallout, it would mock any claim to moral high ground offered up to justify the war in Iraq.

The House measure allows what is legally called “extraordinary rendition,” a comfy abstraction that essentially means to torture by proxy. The Senate’s intelligence reform bill fortunately has no such provision.

Torture by proxy seems already to have been applied to Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria. The computer technician was arrested between international flights at John F. Kennedy Airport in 2002 on suspicion of being a member of Al Qaeda. After 13 days of interrogation, federal officials expelled him to Syria. There, Arar said, he was held for 10 months in a “grave-sized cell” and beaten and tortured before Syrian officials decided he was innocent and released him.

Arar, now back in Ottawa, may not be the only terror suspect so treated. CIA agents are believed to be holding as many as 100 so-called “ghost” detainees in Iraq. Their names and locations and the conditions under which they are held are secret -- contrary to international law governing prisoners of war. Some off-the-books prisoners may have been packed off to Yemen or Pakistan for the bare-knuckles treatment.

The American Bar Assn. is incensed by the House’s apparent willingness to bless torture by proxy. Its pressure seems to have pushed Alberto Gonzales, the president’s chief lawyer, into publicly distancing the administration from the measure.


Still, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has said the Justice Department “really wants and supports” these provisions. Presumably those are the same Justice Department officials who argue that as commander in chief, the president is bound neither by international nor domestic laws barring torture.