Accounting for the Detainees

By William H. Taft IV, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, has served as legal adviser to the State Department from 2001 to 2005 and as deputy defense secretary from 1984 to 1989 (THE WASHINGTON POST, 27/09/06):

This month the Bush administration revealed that for several years it has been operating a program under which some of the people captured in the war on terrorism have been held in secret prisons. These persons — believed to have information about various terrorist plans and practices — were subjected to what the administration calls “alternative” methods of interrogation, and they provided information that helped the government prevent a number of terrorist attacks.

Fourteen people have been moved from the secret prisons to detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Apparently there were additional persons being secretly held as part of the program. The government has not identified them or disclosed where they are now, beyond saying that they are no longer being held by the United States.

Previously, the government’s failure to account for people it was holding was consistent with the secret nature of the program. But now that the program’s existence has been acknowledged, it should be possible to identify to the International Committee of the Red Cross all those who have been held under it. The ICRC would then be able to advise family members of the whereabouts of the detainees. Equally important, if the program is continued, as the administration has proposed, the ICRC can be notified promptly of anyone being held for the same purpose. It could also be given periodic access to those being held, as is the case with the detainees at Guantanamo, in Iraq and in other areas of conflict around the world.

Allowing the ICRC to carry out its customary role with regard to people held under this program would have three important benefits.

First, it would reassure friends and allies that the United States will comply with the generally recognized rules for treatment of persons captured in armed conflict. It would underscore our commitment to the values we share with our friends and show how such values differ from those of terrorists, whose only account of their captives is written in the signs of torture on discarded corpses — and in occasional televised beheadings.

When they first appeared in the media, the reports that we were operating secret prisons became a rallying point for our critics and made it more difficult for foreign governments to support and cooperate with us in the war on terrorism. Our credibility and moral authority were damaged. We need to restore both.

Second, it would avoid creating an unfortunate precedent for our own service members who might be captured in battle. The United States has always insisted on the importance of a full accounting of soldiers missing in action. For many years, failure to resolve the issue of MIAs held up normalization of relations with Vietnam. Family members naturally demanded to know the fate of their loved ones. We need to set an example so that our service members are promptly and fully accounted for when captured.

Third, it would reduce the temptation for those in charge of detainees to abuse them or even deny any knowledge of them if they die in our custody, accidentally or otherwise. No doubt our interrogators are well trained, but they are also human. They will be strongly pressed to get information that could save American lives. They could reasonably be angry at those responsible for the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. The detainees, whose refusal to cooperate will often be enraging, will be in their power. We have already seen these circumstances lead to shameful conduct by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — conduct that surely haunts those responsible for it and that has had, in more than one instance, fatal consequences for detainees. If there is no accountability for what happens to detainees, if it is not even known that they’ve been captured, the likelihood of such incidents will only increase.

We owe it to those who are on the front lines in the war against terrorism not only to train them well but also to create conditions, where possible, that will reinforce rather than undermine their capacity for proper conduct. By introducing accountability to the system, notifying the ICRC promptly of the identity of the detainees and arranging for the ICRC to have periodic access to them, we can contribute significantly to that end.

Some years ago the United States was a leading voice in deploring regimes that “disappeared” their opponents. It’s time to reestablish our credentials as a critic of this practice.