The black hole problem deepens

Can a democracy keep legions of terror suspects locked up in secret forever? The Bush administration faces a conundrum of its own making.

Published May 9, 2005 7:43PM (EDT)

So now that another major al-Qaida figure is in custody -- even if under questionable circumstances of timing -- what happens to Abu Farraj al-Libbi and all the others held in perpetuity at secret U.S. prisons, and those of our "allies," around the globe? For more than three years now, under the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies, the answer has been something of a black hole.

But can a democracy keep legions of bad guys locked up in secret forever?

Newsweek reports that the administration has in fact been addressing the conundrum: Condoleezza Rice raised the issue months ago, at a cabinet-level meeting shortly after the 2004 election, in which she suggested that the war on terror was moving into a "new phase." She said that the government had to begin addressing some critical questions: How long was it prepared to keep terror suspects in a state of legal limbo? How would they be brought to justice?

According to Newsweek, one unnamed official who was present at the meeting recalled Paul Wolfowitz's expressing urgency about conducting trials, in order to remind the world of the evil motives of America's enemies and disarm the rising protests of human-rights groups. "Why aren't we doing something?" the official recalled Wolfowitz's saying. "We're sitting here getting the crap beat out of us." (An apt choice of words, it seems.)

Pentagon officials are now reviewing the evidence against a large number of captured al-Qaida suspects, according to Newsweek, and have "intense planning underway," said one official, to bring them to trial later this year. Instead of trying them together in a Nuremberg-style proceeding, they would likely be prosecuted individually, because it would be "easier to control," the official said.

But how about "controlling" what the proceedings would reveal about U.S. policy?

"Some officials worry that any trial would risk putting the United States -- and some of its questionable methods in the terror war -- up on the stand right next to the suspects," the article continues. "They are particularly concerned about suspects whom the United States 'rendered' over to foreign countries known for torturing prisoners. Under public pressure, the White House disavowed the practice. But an administration source says turning suspects over to less-squeamish governments is still 'not off the table.'"

So there you have it: We no longer secretly do torture by proxy -- until we decide there's ample justification to do it again. Given that position probably won't play real well in the court of world opinion, don't count on seeing Abu Farraj al-Libbi and the rest of the gang take the witness stand any time soon.

Update: According to a report in the Sunday London Times, al-Libbi may not even be the man the Bush administration has said he is (hat tip to War Room reader, S.F.). European intelligence officials quoted by the Times said that al-Libbi was not al-Qaida's third in command, as claimed by U.S. and Pakistani officials last week, but a middle-ranked operative derided by one source as "among the flotsam and jetsam" of the organization. (Some have speculated that U.S. officials initially confused al-Libbi with another Libyan-born terrorist, Anas al-Liby, wanted by the FBI in connection with the 1998 East African embassy bombings.)

An unnamed senior FBI official, adds the Times, has admitted that al-Libbi's "influence and position have been overstated," while another U.S. official explained al-Libbi's absence from FBI and State Department terrorist watch lists by saying, "We did not want him to know he was wanted."

The Times report reads a bit funky in its own right: A "former close associate of Osama bin Laden's now living in London," the paper says, "laughed" about al-Libbi's glorified capture: "What I remember of him is he used to make the coffee and do the photocopying." (Huh?) Nevertheless, there seems to be more than enough reason to question the veracity of the Bush administration's pronouncing the al-Libbi capture a "critical victory in the war on terror."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Abu Ghraib Al-qaida Cia Guantanamo Osama Bin Laden Pakistan Terrorism Torture War Room