I’m having real trouble understanding the current flap over allegations that
the CIA is running secret overseas prisons for terrorists and enemy combatants.
I would prefer not to believe this is just another outbreak of reflexive
anti-Americanism, but I don’t see any principled case against what is
being alleged. Can anyone explain it to me?
Now, mind you, if there were any reason at all to believe American
citizens were being shipped off to these hypothetical gulags I would
be screaming bloody murder. I believe even American citizens taken
under arms as enemy combatants are entitled to the protections
guaranteed by the Constitution. Violating the rights of non-combatant
Americans in this way would be even worse — grounds for
impeachment of every official in the chain of command, up to and
including the President.
But the U.S. government has no constitutional, legal, or moral
obligation to treat foreign terrorists or foreign enemy combatants as
though they were American citizens. The laws of the host country
might apply, but even that much is not clear if the locations are on
U.S. military bases (often, by treaty or agreement, these are
administered under U.S. military law).
I do think we have a moral obligation to treat such prisoners
humanely. But the outrage being ginned up isn’t over any alleged
inhumanity, it’s against the U.S. having such facilities at all. And
I don’t get that. Back during the Cold War, not even the Left bleated
over Communist-bloc agents being immured in similar conditions; what
makes jihadi and Baathist terrorists any more deserving of anyone’s
To be clear, I recognize the obvious political and moral dangers of
having such a system; they have to be traded off against the lives
that are saved by the intelligence it collects and by keeping hardened
terrists out of play. But it seems to me that’s a debate that should
be confined to American domestic politics, and conducted with
circumspection even there lest it provide political cover for our
Instead, we have European politicians mouthing off about denying
the U.S. overflight rights and demanding more public disclosure. That
is out of line; whether those prisons exist and what goes on there is
to be decided by (a) Americans, (b) the host countries, and (c)
nobody else. This is an elementary application of the same
rules of sovereignity that Europeans treat with such fastidious
tenderness when an anti-American dictator is the beneficiary.
As I said, I’d like to believe this flap isn’t just the routine
and unjustified U.S.-bashing I’ve come to expect. But I’m not