Yesterday I went to see the movie “Rendition”. It disturbed me greatly- not because it is graphic in its depiction of American torture, but because I know that this country is torturing people- and this movie was a disturbing reminder. It is hard to shake the sickness I had while watching this. Have we become the enemy that we purport to be fighting? It is incomprehensible to me that we actually have a debate in this country about whether water boarding is torture or not. What has happened to us? As long as our country goes down this path- I fear that the terrorists have won- this is exactly what they want us to do.
Amnesty International uses the term “rendition” to describe the transfer of individuals from one country to another, by means that bypass all judicial and administrative due process. In the “war on terror” context, the practice is mainly – although not exclusively – initiated by the USA, and carried out with the collaboration, complicity or acquiescence of other governments. The most widely known manifestation of rendition is the secret transfer of terror suspects into the custody of other states – including Egypt, Jordan and Syria – where physical and psychological brutality feature prominently in interrogations. The rendition network’s aim is to use whatever means necessary to gather intelligence, and to keep detainees away from any judicial oversight.
However, the rendition network also serves to transfer people into US custody, where they may end up in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, detention centres in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in secret facilities known as “black sites” run by the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In a number of cases, individuals have been transferred in and out of US custody several times. Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, for instance, was arrested by Indonesian intelligence agents in January 2002, allegedly on the instructions of the CIA, who flew him from Jakarta to Egypt, where he “disappeared” and was rumoured to have died under interrogation. In fact, he had been secretly returned to Afghanistan via Pakistan in April 2002 and held there for 11 months before being sent to Guantánamo Bay in March 2003. It was more than a year later that fellow detainees, who said he had been “driven mad” by his treatment, managed to get word of his existence to their lawyers.
Rendition is sometimes presented simply as an efficient means of transporting terror suspects from one place to another without red tape. Such benign characterizations conceal the truth about a system that puts the victim beyond the protection of the law, and sets the perpetrator above it.
Renditions involve multiple layers of human rights violations. Most victims of rendition were arrested and detained illegally in the first place: some were abducted; others were denied access to any legal process, including the ability to challenge the decision to transfer them because of the risk of torture. There is also a close link between renditions and enforced disappearances. Many of those who have been illegally detained in one country and illegally transported to another have subsequently “disappeared”, including dozens who have “disappeared” in US custody. Every one of the victims of rendition interviewed by Amnesty International has described incidents of torture and other ill-treatment.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the practice of rendition, and because many of the victims have “disappeared”, it is difficult to estimate the scope of the programme. In many countries, families are reluctant to report their relatives as missing, for fear that intelligence officials will turn their attention on them. Amnesty International has spoken to several people who have given credible accounts of rendition, but are unwilling to make their names or the circumstances of their arrests and transfers known. Some cases come to light when the victim is released or given access to a lawyer, although neither event is a common occurrence in the life of a rendition victim.
The number of cases currently appears to be in the hundreds: Egypt’s Prime Minister noted in 2005 that the USA had transferred some 60-70 detainees to Egypt alone, and a former CIA agent with experience in the region believes that hundreds of detainees have been sent by the USA to prisons in the Middle East. The USA has acknowledged the capture of about 30 “high value” detainees whose whereabouts remain unknown, and the CIA is reportedly investigating some three dozen additional cases of “erroneous rendition”, in which people were detained based on flawed evidence or confusion over names.
However, this is a minimum estimate. Rendition, like “disappearance”, is designed to evade public and judicial scrutiny, to hide the identity of the perpetrators and the fate of the victims.
“They promptly tore his fingernails out and he started telling thing,.” said Vincent Cannistraro, former Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, describing what happened to a detainee who was rendered to Egypt.
Those who have been rendered to other countries for interrogation have said they were beaten with hands or sticks, made to stand for days on end, hung up for falaqa (beatings on the sole of the foot) or deprived of food or sleep. In some cases, the conditions of detention, including prolonged isolation, have themselves amounted to cruel treatment. Yet no one can investigate this, much less stop it, because the condition and whereabouts of most rendition victims remain concealed.
There is little doubt that transfers are intended to facilitate such abusive interrogation. The former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Vincent Cannistraro, told Newsday newspaper in February 2003 that a senior al-Qa’ida detainee had been sent from Guantánamo Bay to Egypt because he was refusing to cooperate with his interrogators. In Egypt, Vincent Cannistraro said, “they promptly tore his fingernails out and he started telling things.” Robert Baer, a former CIA official in the Middle East, told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): “As I understand it, there’s a lot of franchising stuff out. Syria is a country, like Iraq, where they torture people. They use electrodes, water torture. They take torture to the point of death, like the Egyptians. The way you get around involving Americans in torture is to get someone else to do it.”
The US government has claimed that renditions do not lead to a risk of torture. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice insisted that: “the United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.”
Even if one were to accept the premise that rendition is not intended to facilitate interrogation under torture, reliance on such “diplomatic assurances” would not satisfy the absolute obligation not to transfer any person to a country where they risk torture or other ill-treatment (the principle of non-refoulement). Indeed, the premise on which such assurances are based is inherently self-contradictory. If the risk of torture or ill-treatment in custody is so great that the USA must ask for assurances that the receiving state is not going to carry out such a crime, than the risk is obviously too great to permit the transfer. Most states asked to provide such assurances have already signed binding legal conventions prohibiting torture and ill-treatment, and have ignored them. Moreover, the use of diplomatic assurances creates a situation in which neither state has an interest in monitoring the agreement effectively, as any breach of the agreement would implicate both the sending and receiving states in internationally prohibited acts of torture or ill-treatment.
Before 11 September 2001, rendition was largely thought of as a means of returning suspected terrorists to the USA for trial. President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 39 of June 1995 states: “When terrorists wanted for violation of U.S. law are at large overseas, their return for prosecution shall be a matter of the highest priority.” If we do not receive adequate cooperation from a state that harbors a terrorist whose extradition we are seeking, we shall take appropriate measures to induce cooperation. Return of suspects by force may be effected without the cooperation of the host government, consistent with the procedures outlined in [National Security Directive 77], which shall remain in effect.”(6) National Security Directive 77 was issued by President George W. Bush in January 1992, and its contents remain classified.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 1998, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh noted: “During the past decade, the United States has successfully returned 13 suspected international terrorists to stand trial in the United States for acts or planned acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens… Based on its policy of treating terrorists as criminals and applying the rule of law against them, the United States is one of the most visible and effective forces in identifying, locating, and apprehending terrorists on American soil and overseas.”
At the same time, however, other US agencies were making provision to render terrorist suspects to third countries, where the goal was not trial, but to keep them in custody, out of circulation, and without access to US courts. Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, said that the CIA had originally proposed a programme to bring suspects back to the USA and hold them as prisoners of war. When this failed to gain administration approval, in 1995, the rendition programme to Egypt was proposed and accepted. The goal was to “get the guys off the streets”, said Michael Scheuer, and to seize documents, computers and any other information that could be exploited for intelligence. He also noted, however, that it was still White House officials who called the shots: they “told the CIA what to do, and decided how it should pursue, capture and detain terrorists… Having failed to find a legal means to keep all the detainees in American custody, they preferred to let other countries do our dirty work”.
Publicly, however, it continued to be suggested that rendition was a means of ensuring that terrorist suspects stood trial. In 2000, in a statement before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, CIA Director George Tenet said: “Since July 1998, working with foreign governments worldwide, we have helped to render more than two dozen terrorists to justice. More than half were associates of Usama Bin Ladin’s Al-Qa’ida organization. These renditions have shattered terrorist cells and networks, thwarted terrorist plans, and in some cases even prevented attacks from occurring.” The meaning of the phrase “render… to justice” is not entirely clear. Amnesty International has asked the CIA for details of who was rendered and to where, and the dates of their trials, but has received no response.
In 2004, George Tenet testified to the US Congress’ 9/11 Commission that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which added a Renditions Branch in 1997, “has racked up many successes, including the rendition of many dozens of terrorists prior to September 11, 2001.” In later remarks, he clarified that there had been at least 70 renditions to foreign countries; no trials were mentioned.
“All I want to say is that there was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off… ‘No Limits’ aggressive, relentless, worldwide pursuit of any terrorist who threatens us is the only way to go…” said Cofer Black, Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre from 1999 until May 2002, in a statement before the 9/11 Commission.
Since 11 September the focus of rendition practice has shifted emphatically; the aim now is to ensure that suspects are not brought to stand trial, but are handed over to foreign governments for interrogation – a process known in the USA as “extraordinary rendition” – or are kept in US custody on foreign sites. What was once an inter-agency operation was apparently turned largely over to the CIA under a still-classified directive signed by President Bush in September 2001. The minority and majority leaders of both chambers of Congress were apparently notified of the CIA’s new powers, but were not consulted on or even shown the directive.
The directive is said to give the CIA the power to capture and hold terrorist suspects. Prior to its signing, the CIA could capture suspects, but had no authority to keep them in custody. This had been part of the reason for establishing the rendition program in the first place; it enabled the CIA – and other US intelligence agencies – to capture suspects and ship them off to client states without having to produce the evidence that would justify detention or trial. Roger Cressey, who was deputy counter-terrorism director at the White House in 2001, told UPI: “We are going to make mistakes. We are even going to kill the wrong people sometimes. That’s the inherent risk of an aggressive counter-terrorism program.”
As the practice of rendition has shown, mistakes are indeed made and lives are ruined. Some in the US government have tried to justify rendition and “black sites” by saying they are a necessary means of capturing and holding the “worst of the worst”, and that “renditions save lives”, yet there is no legal or judicial mechanism to ensure that this is the case. The methodology is to grab first, sometimes on flimsy or non-existent evidence, and to ask questions later.
Without a transparent process, based on the international standards and customary rules that bind all states, the program of rendition and secret detention is eroding the human security and rule of law it claims to protect. For all practical purposes, the USA has created a law-free zone, in which the human rights of certain individuals have simply been erased.
On January 27, 2003 President Bush, in an interview with the New York Times, assured the world that “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.” Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria, was surprised to learn of Bush’s statement. Two and a half years ago, American officials, suspecting Arar of being a terrorist, apprehended him in New York and sent him back to Syria, where he endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture. When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.”
Arar, a thirty-four-year-old graduate of McGill University whose family emigrated to Canada when he was a teen-ager, was arrested on September 26, 2002, at John F. Kennedy Airport. He was changing planes; he had been on vacation with his family in Tunisia, and was returning to Canada. Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects. He was held for the next thirteen days, as American officials questioned him about possible links to another suspected terrorist. Arar said that he barely knew the suspect, although he had worked with the man’s brother. Arar, who was not formally charged, was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet. The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan.
During the flight, Arar said, he heard the pilots and crew identify themselves in radio communications as members of “the Special Removal Unit.” The Americans, he learned, planned to take him next to Syria. Having been told by his parents about the barbaric practices of the police in Syria, Arar begged crew members not to send him there, arguing that he would surely be tortured. His captors did not respond to his request; instead, they invited him to watch a spy thriller that was aired on board.
Ten hours after landing in Jordan, Arar said, he was driven to Syria, where interrogators, after a day of threats, “just began beating on me.” They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave. “Not even animals could withstand it,” he said. Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. “You just give up,” he said. “You become like an animal.”
A year later, in October, 2003, Arar was released without charges, after the Canadian government took up his cause. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian Ambassador in Washington, announced that his country had found no links between Arar and terrorism. Arar, it turned out, had been sent to Syria on orders from the U.S. government, under a secretive program known as “extraordinary rendition.” This program had been devised as a means of extraditing terrorism suspects from one foreign state to another for interrogation and prosecution. Critics contend that the unstated purpose of such renditions is to subject the suspects to aggressive methods of persuasion that are illegal in America—including torture.
Arar is suing the U.S. government for his mistreatment. “They are outsourcing torture because they know it’s illegal,” he said. “Why, if they have suspicions, don’t they question people within the boundary of the law?”
Rendition was originally carried out on a limited basis, but after September 11th, when President Bush declared a global war on terrorism, the program expanded beyond recognition—becoming, according to a former C.I.A. official, “an abomination.” What began as a program aimed at a small, discrete set of suspects—people against whom there were outstanding foreign arrest warrants—came to include a wide and ill-defined population that the Administration terms “illegal enemy combatants.” Many of them have never been publicly charged with any crime. Scott Horton, an expert on international law who helped prepare a report on renditions issued by N.Y.U. Law School and the New York City Bar Association, estimates that a hundred and fifty people have been rendered since 2001. Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, said that a more precise number was impossible to obtain. “I’ve asked people at the C.I.A. for numbers,” he said. “They refuse to answer. All they will say is that they’re in compliance with the law.”
Although the full scope of the extraordinary-rendition program isn’t known, several recent cases have come to light that may well violate U.S. law. In 1998, Congress passed legislation declaring that it is “the policy of the United States not to expel, extradite, or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the United States.”
The Bush Administration, however, has argued that the threat posed by stateless terrorists who draw no distinction between military and civilian targets is so dire that it requires tough new rules of engagement. This shift in perspective, labelled the New Paradigm in a memo written by Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel, “places a high premium on . . . the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians,” giving less weight to the rights of suspects.
It also questions many international laws of war. Five days after Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vice-President Dick Cheney, reflecting the new outlook, argued, on “Meet the Press,” that the government needed to “work through, sort of, the dark side.” Cheney went on, “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
In a history-making lawsuit, the ACLU has challenged the CIA on behalf of Khaled El-Masri, an entirely innocent victim of rendition who was released without ever being charged.
The lawsuit charges that former CIA Director George Tenet violated U.S. and universal human rights laws when he authorized agents to abduct Mr. El-Masri, beat him, drug him, and transport him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan. The corporations that owned and operated the airplanes used to transport Mr. El-Masri are also named in the case. The CIA continued to hold Mr. El-Masri incommunicado in the notorious “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan long after his innocence was known. Five months after his abduction, Mr. El-Masri was deposited at night, without explanation, on a hill in Albania.
The United States government has yet to acknowledge its unlawful abduction and mistreatment of Mr. El-Masri. No U.S. official has been held accountable for violating Mr. El-Masri’s well-established rights to due process and fair treatment and the Fourth Circuit decision makes it virtually impossible to challenge the government in court.
In response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation for Attorney General, Michael Mukasey said that waterboarding – mock drowning prosecuted by the United States as torture since 1902 – was “repugnant,” but refused to call it illegal.
In his 172-page response to Senate Judiciary committee questions, Mukasey refused to comment on the legality of any specific interrogation techniques, claiming that it would be inappropriate to comment on them until he had been briefed by the Justice Department on “the actual facts and circumstances” of how they may have been used.
These facts are disturbing to say the least. The fact that we are having a national debate about torture techniques is abhorrent. We have lost our national morality and our credibility.