Nothing conjures up an image of the gulag and the totalitarian state more than the disappeared nonperson. While Americans try to content themselves that such things happen only in other countries, for years the United States, contrary to the custom of war, kept the names of some prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq secret from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
This practice, born of fear, was typical of the overreach of the Bush administration, which took a selective view of the Geneva Conventions in prosecuting the war on terror. The excuse was that to disclose details about the most dangerous terrorists and foreign fighters could tip off their colleagues who remained at large.
It was a flimsy excuse for arrogant behavior -- in fact, behavior that always threatened to rebound against American servicemen caught by the enemy. Now, with a new administration, the practice has been quietly abandoned -- as The New York Times reported Sunday.
The policy of secrecy was not general or far-reaching. The Red Cross, which is specifically allowed under the Geneva Conventions to have contacts with POWs, has had access to many military prisons and detention sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the so-called Special Operations camps were the exception. Detainees were supposed to stay there only two weeks and then be released or transferred to detention sites where their names would be reported. However, extensions could be approved by the defense secretary, and human-rights advocates told The Times that some detainees were kept in a secret limbo for weeks.
For its part, the Pentagon said the Red Cross was notified within two weeks about most detainees at such camps. The Times' sources, however, said the new policy requires the military to identify all detainees in such camps to the Red Cross within two weeks of capture. This change is part of a broader look by the military at its practices on detainees as part of the new climate ushered in by the Obama administration.
So while the new policy can be seen as incremental, it is one more sign that the United States is trying harder to live up to its ideals, a belated step to be applauded.