REPORTS THAT the CIA has run secret prisons in Eastern Europe to interrogate terrorist suspects have produced an outcry in the international community. The European Commission announced, according to The Financial Times, that it would investigate whether Poland and Romania have allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to run a secret detention and interrogation center on their soil. Europe's leading human rights organization, the Council of Europe, said it would open an investigation into the reports. The UN Human Rights Committee and its special rapporteur on torture said they have already been pressing the US government to disclose the existence of any secret detention centers. The concern of the international community is clear: The United States has for years promoted respect for due process and human rights in Eastern Europe, yet more recently the United States may have been taking shortcuts in precisely those areas in the name of security.
Officials in Poland and Romania, as well as in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, have issued strong denials. The Czech interior minister said his country had rejected US requests to take prisoners being held at the US base in Guantanamo. It's illegal for the US government to hold prisoners in isolation in secret prisons in the United States.
But the CIA's internment practices also would be considered illegal under the laws of all the new democracies of Eastern Europe. In every East European democracy, detainees have rights to a lawyer and to mount a defense against allegations of wrongdoing. Indeed, the State Department publishes an annual Human Rights Report to inhibit in foreign lands just the kind of prisoner abuse being alleged. Under the EU treaty, the voting rights of EU members could in theory be suspended in the event of a ''serious and persistent breach" of fundamental principles such as respect for human rights.
For US public diplomacy objectives, the symbolism could not be more damaging -- America secretly interrogating prisoners in a Soviet-era compound within the former Soviet bloc. Russia has taken the step to deny that it has CIA prisons on its soil.
If the United States has been involved in ''enhanced interrogation" techniques at ''black sites" in Eastern Europe, American credibility as a standard-setter for human rights and the rule of law will suffer a major setback. Indeed, it was with US support that the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe made great strides to dismantle vestiges of authoritarian governance. In the first decade of the post-Communist era, new constitutions were passed outlawing secret detention and torture. Independent courts have been put in place to enforce these rules. Prisons in Eastern Europe have been made more humane and livable in part because these nations, at US urging, signed the European Convention on Human Rights and other antitorture conventions. Indeed, the United States has spent millions to promote this kind of reform.
If the CIA has been hiding and interrogating important Al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, it would have had to do so with the assistance of foreign intelligence services. For the last decade and a half, the US government has been urging the new Eastern European democracies to cleanse their intelligence services of operatives who have worked on behalf of others.
If reports of CIA-run interrogation facilities are true, it shows a blatant disregard for the law, and it will reshape America's global image. It will also undermine our strategic objectives to promote democracy and human rights. Moreover, torture does not work. Senator John McCain, a torture victim, wrote in a recent Newsweek article: ''In my experience, abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- whether it is true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering."
An editorial several months after 9/11 in the Prague Post warned of this: ''For Eastern Europe, the value the US places on individual freedom and human rights has been a beacon. But a beacon can be swiftly extinguished. Meddling with the terms of justice, the current US administration may be doing irreparable harm to a vision of uniform fairness that defines the American national essence and certifies its institutional contribution to human history."
Even with 9/11, this could have been the American epoch, a time when the best of American values were propagated across the world. Instead, events like this have set us back.
Mark Brzezinski, a Washington attorney, is the author of ''The Struggle for Constitutionalism in Poland."