President Bush declared in his State of the Union address, "Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture." Considering what's come to light since then, the most charitable conclusion is that Bush is completely out of the loop.
In recent weeks, past and present administration officials have confirmed that since September 2001 the Central Intelligence Agency has dispatched between 100 and 150 terror suspects to countries where fine points of law and human rights don't stop beatings, drugging or long isolation.
Before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA occasionally engaged in this indefensible practice, known as "extraordinary rendition." But afterward, Bush gave the agency wider license to export prisoners in terror-related cases who hadn't been tried or even charged with any crime. Despite his State of the Union declaration, the president has apparently not revoked that authority.
U.S. law and international conventions bar sending prisoners to another nation unless there are strong assurances of humane treatment. The CIA says with a straight face that it gets those assurances before delivering suspects to jailers in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan -- countries that have such abysmal human rights records that promises of decent treatment are a joke.
Bush has argued that tough new rules of engagement are necessary to fight stateless terrorists. But morality aside, what intelligence of value have U.S. officials gleaned from suspects who've been handed off to modern-day dungeons? A case in point: In 2002, federal agents arrested Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian engineer, at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York because his name appeared on a terrorist watch list. Although Arar insisted that he was not a terrorist, the U.S. delivered him to Syrian interrogators. After months in a windowless room and regular beatings with thick electric cables, he said, he confessed to anything they wanted just to stop the torment. A year later, Arar was released without charges.
This barbarism is why U.S. judges have refused to condone the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. Yet the military still holds about 500 foreign nationals at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Most have not been charged and have no lawyer, often after years in custody.
Two American citizens have been held in military brigs. The evidence against U.S.-born Yaser Esam Hamdi was so flimsy that last year federal agents packed him off to his family in Saudi Arabia rather than present their case in court. Last week, a federal judge ordered the administration to charge the second, Jose Padilla, or release him within 45 days. Government lawyers say interrogations produced a lot about Padilla's activities, including his relationship with Al Qaeda leaders and his plans to blow up high-rise buildings. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said this week he may still prosecute him. But because most of Padilla's disclosures occurred while he was in military custody, without access to a lawyer, it's doubtful his statements would be admissible in court.
These are only the practical issues. The more haunting problem with Bush's war on terrorism remains the moral one: A nation that considers itself a beacon of freedom seems unable to practice the respect for law and human rights it ardently preaches to others.