Treating Ghost Detainees As Invisible

To the new terms "extraordinary rendition" and "black sites" we can now add "ghost detainees." So why isn't the rest of the press learning along with us?

In the still-unfolding and still-murky story of the detention practices used by the U.S. government in the war on terror since 9/11, “extraordinary rendition” and more recently “black sites” are two terms that have received much attention from the media.

To that lexicon should be added a third: “ghost detainees.” But based on its response thus far to a new report detailing the names and cases of 26 people silently being held at secret foreign prisons, neither the print nor the broadcast press seem much interested.

Late Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a list, based on news reports, public statements by government officials and its own information, of people it is certain have been detained since 9/11 by the U.S. government without due process. The list is convincing, drawing in part on the White House’s own report card of suspects it has captured in the war on terror. And with its release coming after the Washington Post’s much-publicized black sites revelation a month ago and, as the New York Times put it, “amid heightened debate in the United States over possible torture of American-held detainees overseas and rising anger in Europe about possible secret American jails on the Continent, kidnappings of suspects and transfers of ghost prisoners on European soil,” the list would seem to provide a convenient, easy news peg. Yet among major papers only the Times has written its own story about it.

In its article today, the Times notes that the list includes many top suspects believed to be behind the attacks of 9/11 and those on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and Bali nightclubs in 2002. These are clearly “some really bad guys,” said Human Rights Watch’s Marc Garlasco, but “These are [also] criminals who need to be brought to justice. One of our main problems with the U.S. is that justice is not being served by having these people held incognito.” “Our concern is that if illegal methods such as torture are being used against them,” Garlasco added later, trials may be rendered either “impossible or questionable” under international law.

John Sifton, a terrorism and counterterrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with CJR Daily that the group decided to put out the list — which follows an initial list of 11 detainees in Oct. 2004 — given the increased attention paid over the last few weeks to secret sites.

“We wanted to make clear that this is not an allegation. There’s absolutely no doubt that there are secret sites,” Sifton said. “There’s no question that there are secret sites where these people are being held, it’s only a question of where they are.”

The 26 names are those that Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm, Sifton said, out of the 100 or so people believed held without charges in foreign prisons.

Among the wire services, only Agence France Presse has run a story focusing on the HRW report, and the Chicago Tribune’s shorter, five-paragraph version of the Times piece is one of the few examples we can find of other papers paying attention to it at all. There has been nary a mention of it on TV this week, according to a Nexis search.

The point here is not that the HRW report is all that surprising, but that its list (work that papers themselves could have done) provides an easy way for the press to follow up and chip away at the larger story of how the U.S. government has secretly and without accountability treated terror suspects.

Only consistent and continued follow-ups will help keep pressure on the administration to disclose more than vague declarations (or denials) of these shadowy activities. Not taking advantage of such ready opportunities as the one that HRW offered up on a platter is not a good way to start.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.