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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The interrogation methods used at Guantanamo appear to have been derived overwhelmingly from those U.S. Special Forces are trained to resist. And what Americans did at Abu Ghraib could easily have sprung from their modern MTV imaginations, or from a more educated though juvenile understanding of Arab sexual ethics discussed in the taboo-exploring 1973 book The Arab Mind by the late scholar Raphael Patai. Patai seems to have a following in certain quarters of the military; the foreword to the paperback edition of his book was written by a respected former military officer. But the central importance that Seymour Hersh gave to Patai in his essay on Abu Ghraib in the New Yorker is likely overstated. Intellectual influences and traditions in the military, the most hierarchical of organizations, always leave a paper trail, even on subjects that might embarrass non-military personnel. Given the anti-Iraq war sentiment among many Army officers, we would have heard much more detailed commentary about Patai's influence were it actually as great as Hersh's anonymous informants suggest. (In particular, the assertion that the book was "the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior," and thus had a wide prewar impact, is odd given how few neoconservatives have read it--I did an informal survey--and how seldom neoconservatives have Freudian conversations with military officers.)

It is possible that rendition slowly fueled an American willingness to try debriefing methods used by Arab or other Muslim security services against terrorist suspects. One doesn't have to be a fan of Patai to realize that sex is a sensitive issue in the Muslim Middle East, and the security services of modern dictatorships have been known to transgress morality in the pursuit of regime security (Saddam's certainly did). Does anyone think that the internal-security black-clad ninjas of Algeria's military junta--they call themselves les exterminateurs--would scruple to use some form of sexual intimidation against Islamic holy warriors trying to topple the regime if they thought it effective? We definitely have had an expanded military and intelligence liaison relationship with the Algerian military since 9/11. Nor do other, more polite, dictatorial regimes in the Arab world have so rigid a code of ethics as to prevent them from pressuring detainees' ids. Yet this sequencing of cause and effect--the idea that U.S. practice deteriorated under the influence of rendition--runs counter to the CIA's objective in the exercise, namely, to gain distance from the interrogation of suspected terrorists by sending them abroad. What you don't see, you can't teach. The Pentagon and the CIA would have produced reams of paper about the educational impact of rendition, had it existed, and such documents have not so far surfaced. They surely would have if they'd been even tangentially connected to Abu Ghraib. The inspector general's office at the CIA is sufficiently competent, morally attentive, and politically astute to discover and expose any substantial cross-fertilization.

Yet even if we assume that rendition did somehow lead to Abu Ghraib, should we therefore conclude that rendition is wrong? Worthwhile actions can have adverse consequences that don't necessarily negate the value of what was originally done. America killed huge numbers of civilians in World War II, yet only the America-hating fringe believes that those deaths nullify the military and moral triumph of the United States over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Advocates of rendition can argue that the practice saves lives in fighting terrorists who would use weapons of mass destruction if they could. In such circumstances, good intelligence, however obtained, could save tens, even hundreds of thousands of American civilian lives. And Langley's hard-nosed bureaucrats can suggest that it is better to have the "ragheads" do the dirty work than for Americans to sully themselves. It's a decent bet that many Americans, liberal or conservative, would privately agree with that sentiment. It is an ugly world out there, and al Qaeda is to a considerable extent an Arab problem, so why not let Arab allies aggressively interrogate our Arab enemies? They can do this better than we can, so this argument goes, since it is their culture and they've had lots of practice.