The Magazine

Against Rendition

From the May 16, 2005 issue: Why the CIA shouldn't outsource interrogations to countries that torture

May 16, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 33 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Question: Mr. President, under the law, how would you justify the practice of renditioning, where U.S. agents . . . [send] terror suspects abroad, taking them to a third country for interrogation? . . .

Answer: . . . We operate within the law and we send people to countries where they say they're not going to torture the people. But let me say something: The United States government has an obligation to protect the American people. It's in our country's interests to find those who would do harm to us. . . . We still [are] at war.

SO SPOKE PRESIDENT Bush at a press conference on April 28, 2005. There is, however, a contradiction in the president's stated objective to use torture-free rendition as an effective counterterrorist weapon, to wit: Some of the countries to which prisoners have been rendered do use torture. Morally, operationally, and politically, then, the United States has got itself into a muddle through its embrace of rendition--that is, the transfer of American-held terrorists and terrorist suspects into the hands of foreign security and intelligence services.

Though the Central Intelligence Agency doesn't comment officially on the policy, it is one the Bush administration inherited from its predecessor, which used it principally against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. According to a former CIA officer knowledgeable about rendition in the 1990s, the Clinton administration first briefed the congressional intelligence oversight committees on transfers in the summer of 1995. Even then, the practice had antecedents in the cooperative "liaison" intelligence efforts Langley has run with a variety of Middle Eastern and Asian countries, notably Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states with which the Clandestine Service has probably worked most closely over the last 25 years. In the mid-1980s, when Duane Clarridge, the contra-supporting, covert-action-loving favorite of CIA director William Casey, transformed the agency's Counterterrorism Center into a serious bureaucratic force at Langley, counterterrorist liaison work with friendly Arab states increased significantly. Joint-counterterrorist and joint-espionage operations have occasionally cast foreign security services as punishers of deceitful agents controlled by CIA case officers. Depending on the sin, retribution could be severe.

A byproduct of Langley's decades-old inability to recruit or secrete agents inside many Middle Eastern organizations, the increasing use of friendly Arab liaison services is actually part of a global pattern, where liaison work has gradually taken priority over "unilateral" (CIA-only) clandestine operations. In the Middle East post-9/11, this liaison dispensation, according to active-duty agency officers, has skyrocketed. Since the late 1990s, the United States has rendered at least 100 men, according to both congressional and CIA officials, into foreign hands. Most of these transfers have occurred since 9/11, which changed a low-profile counterterrorist tool into standard operating procedure, critical to the way the CIA wages its battle against Islamic extremism.

The moral issues surrounding rendition are what has caught the attention of the press and both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. One regularly hears in Washington a conjecture that rendition may have been the top of a slippery slope that led to very rough tactics at Guantanamo Bay and to Abu Ghraib's abusive antics. This view may have merit. If the CIA is rendering detainees to foreigners because of the efficacy of their aggressive interrogations, then the CIA is acknowledging the utility of heavy-handedness in counterterrorist debriefings. And the agency, by all accounts, does use harsh methods at its own facilities against members of al Qaeda. (Whether these methods constitute torture is another question.) Such a professional disposition could have seeped into intelligence units in the Pentagon that work with the agency. Military intelligence often follows Langley's custom and practice, though it hates to admit it. And once professional ethics start to crack, an implosion can occur. Yet it is entirely possible, if not probable, that military outfits came up with the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib techniques strictly on their own.