The United States maintains secret prisons on ships in the ocean in order to detain people outside the reach or even the knowledge of any system of law, the better to torture the ever-living cheney out of them. Over at the Black Commentator, Glen Ford (now at the Black Agenda Report) has been calling the Bush Cheney gang pirates for years. And the point is not just that they're criminals, but that they are outlaws, killers, and thieves who operate outside any national allegiance or system of laws or morality.

The torture ships are in the news of late, at least in England, thanks to the work of an attorney and author named Clive Stafford Smith and his organization: Reprieve ( ). A report just released by Reprieve has resulted in news reports in The Guardian, Associated Press, and Reuters.

An explanation of the piratethink that produced the prison ships can be found in Smith's wonderful book, released last year, called "Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice at Guantanamo Bay." The book focuses on prisoners detained and tortured at Guantanamo, many of whom Smith has served as counsel for, but also touches on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons outside the reach of the U.S. military. (The book is more than worth buying if only to read the chapter called "Conmission" in which innocent Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed is hauled before a kangaroo court military commission, serves as his own lead attorney, and completely out-maneuvers, mocks, and humiliates the prosecutors.)

´┐╝The name Clarendon means little more to me than a section of Arlington, Va., not far from a large building owned by CACI, a private mercenary (pirate for hire) torture company. But Smith gives the name more meaning:

"Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon, had been a favourite of King Charles II and had engineered the marriage of his daughter to Charles' son James. This meant that he would become the grandfather of two queens of England, but it did not prevent his fall from favour. He faced articles of impeachment [remember those?] in 1672. The charges against him included the allegation that he had been the architect of Britain's system of offshore island gulags around the country: 'That he hath advised and procured divers of his Majesty's Subjects to be imprisoned, against Law, in remote Islands, Garrisons, and other Places; thereby, to prevent them from the Benefit of the Law, and to introduce Precedents [remember how those work?] for imprisoning any other of his Majesty's Subjects in like Manner.'

"The idea had been to lock people up on an island off the coast of Britain and deny them access to courts. Now facing an appearance in the dock himself, Clarendon chose not to wait until he was in jail and rely on a writ of habeas corpus [remember those?] to challenge the legality of his own detention: he fled the country before he could be convicted and spent the rest of his life in exile in France. The excesses alleged against Clarendon prompted the passage of the seminal Habeas Corpus Act of 1679."

The U.S. recreation of the Clarendon plan began with Guantanamo and US Air Force bases in Germany, both locations being technically not U.S. soil but completely under U.S. control. But the German media might someday do its job, and both of these locations suffered from working with the U.S. military. Soldiers might someday complete their terms of service, return home, and tell tales. So, the pirates turned to Middle Eastern dictatorships, but secrets leaked, and the public there was overwhelmingly in sympathy with the prisoners. Thailand offered an alternative, until the Thais refused to allow it. So the pirates tried using old Soviet prisons in Poland and Romania until news leaked there and the pressure grew too great to stay. What to do? Where to go?

The pirates turned to their partner in crime, Great Britain, and its island base out in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia (actually an island with inhabitants whom the British had forced to leave their homes in 1973). Perfect! "Yet," writes Smith, "the prisoners could not be held physically on British territory, because it would be politically embarrassing and there might be unpleasantness to face in the European Court of Human Rights. The US might, rather, find inspiration from another archaic practice of penology: the hulk, or prison ship."

The ship could not, however, belong to the U.S. Navy, because that would make it U.S. territory. It would have to fly some other flag. And it would have to be small enough to be run by the torturers, thus avoiding the loose lips of members of the military.

"Using a ship would provide Blair with deniability - 'There are no prisoners being held on British sovereign territory,' the British government could bluster with technical accuracy. It would provide deniability to the US also. 'There are no secret prisons on US territory,' Bush could insist equally disarmingly.'"

While few Americans know anything about this gulag flotilla, it's a safe bet that our designated presidential candidates have heard about it.

When asked about other known crimes of Bush and Cheney, Senator Barack Obama has said that he can't see any crimes now, but he'll be glad to look into it after we elect him. So, it's a safe bet that if he becomes president Obama will create a task force to advise him on whether it's illegal or abusive in any way to secretly kidnap random innocent people, allow their families to think they're dead, hide them in the hull of what can technically only be called a pirate ship, beat them, hang them by their wrists, starve them, electroshock them, hold their heads underwater, and keep them chained hands-and-feet like something worse than wild animals. Depending on what conclusions Obama's subordinates draw, it seems an even bet he'll launch a more in-depth study to fully investigate the question in a discrete and respectful manner.

McCain is a different story, at least in terms of rhetoric. When asked how he came to switch from being an opponent and supposed victim of torture denouncing it as both evil and useless, to a cheerleader for its blatantly illegal use and its justification by dictatorial "signing statement", Senator John McCain . . . Actually, we would have to have a public communications system for McCain to ever have been asked such an impolite question, but I feel safe in asserting that HAD he been asked that question, he would have replied by threatening to torture the questioner, with a wink and a nervous grin, followed by a slurred and semi-coherent refusal ever to surrender to "extremists." If I were a betting man, my money would be on McCain's presidential campaign quite soon offering to name torture ships in honor of major campaign donors. A pirate-themed ball at the Republican National Convention is not unlikely.