The secret prison system set up by the United States to hold suspects in the war on terror was under critical new scrutiny on every side Wednesday. And the controversy appeared linked to widespread and growing speculation that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s unprecedented power might be crumbling, in the wake of the indictment of his top aide.
However, administration sources said President George W. Bush and his top officials remained determined to continue waging the war on terror in the way they have over the past four years.
The president and his top team believe that the success of the U.S. military and intelligence and domestic security services in preventing any follow-up catastrophic attack on the U.S. mainland comparable to, or worse than, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed 2,800 people had justified the wisdom of their tactics and strategy, the sources said.
Administration insiders said Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were the driving forces in the tough policy of holding hundreds, possibly thousands, of suspect Islamist detainees in a network of former Soviet prisons in Eastern European nations eager to stay on good terms with the United States.
But late week, Cheney lost his trusted right-hand man of the past five years when I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, his chief of staff, was forced to resign after being indicted for perjury by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the investigation of the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
And The New York Times reported that Cheney had been the individual who had disclosed Plame’s identity to Libby, a story that put Cheney in the cross hairs of the continuing investigation.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported aides to Cheney and some senior Pentagon officials had opposed tightening up the legal definitions on handling terror suspects. Some Defense Department and State Department officials had urged tightening up the language and using terms from the Geneva Convention that prevent “cruel,” “humiliating” and “degrading” treatment, the paper said.
The New York Times said that Pentagon officials were revising four major documents, including two high-level directives on detention operations and interrogations and the U.S. Army’s interrogations manual as part of their response to the 12 major investigations and policy reviews that had followed the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.
Administration sources said that Libby’s departure would not mean any softening in the vice president’s stance on detainee policy. They noted that Libby’s successor as Cheney’s national security adviser, John Hannah, had served since the start of the Bush administration as Libby’s own right-hand man and had shared with him responsibility in formulating key policy positions.
Also, The New York Times reported Wednesday that David Addington, Libby’s successor in his other position as Cheney’s chief of staff, also fiercely opposed imposing tougher standards governing the handling terror suspects. The paper said Addington had even “verbally assailed” a Pentagon aide who was briefing him and Libby on the proposed new draft.
However, Cheney’s opponents in the administration have also been emboldened by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.’s, tough stand on the issue. As UPI has reported, McCain is increasingly seen as a potential vice presidential successor to Cheney should the latter have to step down either for reasons of ill-health or if he is implicated in the future in Fitzgerald’s on-going Plame investigation.
The debate within the administration followed increasing pressure from the Senate, spearheaded by McCain, for the Bush administration to crack down on any possibility that torture might be used in any systematic or widespread way against detainees.
Following McCain’s leadership, the Senate has overwhelmingly approved, by 90 votes to nine, an amendment to the $445 billion defense appropriations bill that would crack down heavily to prevent the use of torture. President Bush has threatened to veto the measure.
Cheney unsuccessfully tried to persuade McCain to soften his measure. But McCain, who was tortured during his years as a captive of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, is morally committed on the issue and refuses to back down.
Also Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that some of the most important al-Qaida suspects to have been captured in the now four-year-old war on terror were being held at a Soviet-era compound in an unidentified country in Eastern Europe.
It said the facility was part of a “covert prison system” that has included sites in eight countries including Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe. The paper cited “U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement” as its sources for the report.
The sites were described as “black sites” in classified White House, CIA, Defense Department and congressional documents, the paper said.
The U.S. government appears especially anxious to maintain large secure facilities outside the Muslim world because of the increased danger that suspects can escape in friendly Muslim countries. Omar al-Farouq, one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants in al-Qaida, managed to escape with three accomplices from a U.S. facility in Afghanistan in July.
The Indonesian government, which is fighting al-Qaida’s allied Islamist organization Jemaah Islamiyah, was furious that an embarrassed Bush administration did not promptly inform them of the escape after it occurred.
The Indonesian security authorities had captured al-Farouq and handed him over to the United States. The fiasco of al-Farouq’s escape is believed to have made President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono much more reluctant to hand over such important figures to the U.S. authorities in the future.