Imagine if Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria gave a press conference. What would it sound like?

Beria, as you may remember, was head of Stalin's secret police during one of the most infamous periods in Soviet history, the Great Purge of 1938. As head of the NKVD, or Soviet secret police, he was responsible for carrying out a massive political repression that was nominally focused on a series of "enemies of the people," such as the intelligentsia, professionals and rich peasants. In reality, however, the bloody purge - and others Beria oversaw for Stalin in later years - were simply a means for Stalin to ruthlessly consolidate his power by vanquishing his political enemies through show trials, forced labor camps, torture and, when all else failed, murder.

It has been estimated that millions of people died in Stalin's purges, most of which were run by Beria. Several hundreds of thousands were executed by firing squad and millions more were forcibly resettled or sent to gulags, where many of them died due to starvation, disease, exposure and overwork. As head of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Beria oversaw the larger and larger network of secret camps, detention centers, prison cells and execution sites needed to terrorize anyone even slightly suspected of political disloyalty.

So what would it sound like if in, say, 1938, Beria gave a press conference to detail how the Great Purge was going? Well, it would probably sound a lot like the press conference President Bush gave in the Oval Office of the White House, today, December 6th, 2005.

It's not known for sure if the United States is currently running a secret prison system somewhere in the world that matches the size and scope of the one Beria oversaw during the 1930s and 1940s in Soviet Russia. It's unlikely, of course, but difficult to verify, especially since the Bush administration has made lying, cover-up and mendacity the order of the day when discussing what government agents are or are not doing in the name of the American people in the War on Terror. We do know, however, is that the United States is, in fact, running a secret system of prisons somewhere in the world. In fact, President Bush admitted as such today.

Even without Bush's inadvertent confirmation, however, the most critical bits of information we have on the activities of an American secret prison system come from recent reporting in both The Washington Post and the New Yorker magazine. On Nov. 4, the Post reported that the CIA has been interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda prisoners at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, which many suspect is either in Romania or Poland. Last month, the New Yorker reported that the Bush administration has implicitly authorized torture methods "that may be necessary to win the war on terrorism" as long as they are preformed overseas.

So the evidence is there, in these and other sources. And, when pressed, various members of the administration can't seem to keep their stories straight about whether the United States is breaking international law, not to mention running roughshod over every universally accepted moral and legal norm, in extraditing and torturing prisoners. Just the other day, in fact, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to a group of reporters with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the two got into a disagreement over whether or not it was the responsibility of a U.S. soldier, in a battle zone or elsewhere, to stop torture and physical coercion when he saw it.

Gen. Pace expressed his understanding that whenever a soldier ran across "inhumane treatment," it was his responsibility to do something to stop it. Secretary Rumsfeld, of course, disagreed, noting that he believed it was simply enough to "report" the abuse.

Which brings us back to Bush and Beria. While it's difficult to imagine that the man responsible for the ministry of the interior for one of history's bloodiest police states would ever be forthcoming about governmental activities of any sort, it's not difficult to imagine that the leader of the world's foremost democracy would have no such problem. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Bush proved so today, in the most direct and stark language one could imagine. During a meeting with the Director of the World Health Organization, he was asked by a reporter if the United States had "any plans to change the policy of renditioning and/or the detention centers alleged to be taking place in Europe." In response, Bush said "I don’t talk about secret programs."

Actually, what he said was:

"I don't talk about secret programs, covert programs, covert activities. Part of a successful war on terror is for the United States of America to be able to conduct operations, all aimed to protect the American people, covertly."

So there you have it. Not "well, I can't answer that because we don't have any detention centers in Europe." Not "I'd like to be able to talk about that, but since I don't know anything about it, I can't.' Or not even something like "It is not the policy of the United States to operate secret detention centers anywhere in the world where we would never do something as awful as torture or coerce a suspect who we have not publicly charged."

That's because, in the end, President Bush certainly does know about America's secret detention centers around the world. And, worse yet, he condones of them. His feeble attempts a few moments later to suggest the U.S doesn't torture were once again as laughable as his attempts to make the world believe things are going swimmingly in Iraq these days. Bush, like Rumsfeld, simply believes its okay to torture people in secret locations, outside of the prying eyes of the American people. And he's not ashamed to admit it.

Since the Soviet Union imagined that it was some great experiment in equality and socialism instead of a bloody police state second to perhaps no other in the history of mankind, the worst thing someone could be accused of in Stalin's day (and before, and after) was to be an "enemy of the people." Since these enemies were likely to do anything to undermine the attempts of the Soviet government to make life better for its people, it was believed, any action - no matter how extreme, horrific or unusual - was justified for the greater glory of "the people."

So you could imagine that, in a windowless room somewhere in the Kremlin in 1938 or so, with a half dozen terrified journalists hand-picked to ask Beria how the "Global War on Internal Terrorists" (GWOIT) was going, the bespectacled, balding interior minister, resplendent in his starched Red Army uniform, would likely say everything was coming along nicely, thank you. And, if one of those reporters was bold enough to ask about reports there were secret prisons buried somewhere in the basement of police headquarters, the answer would probably be something along the lines of "We don't discuss covert operations designed to protect the people." And, if the very brave reporter were to ask why people were being tortured in those prison cells, the answer might have been "We've got to take each threat seriously; we've got to stay on the offense."

Just like George Bush. Just like in 2005. Just like in the United States of America.