Keeping torture in American hands

Why ask unsavory foreign "allies" to take care of interrogating terrorist suspects for us, if we can do a better job of it ourselves?

Published May 12, 2005 6:09PM (EDT)

Reuel Marc Gerecht thinks extraordinary rendition, the U.S. government's practice of secretly transferring terrorist suspects into the hands of foreign security services for interrogation, is a bad idea.

He's not the only right-wing voice to say so -- but he sure is staking out some turf of his own as to why. In a long piece for the May 16 issue of The Weekly Standard, Gerecht, a former clandestine CIA officer who's now a fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, argues against rendition for some very sound reasons. It gets us into bed with unsavory, untrustworthy "allies" like Syria and Uzbekistan, he says, whose information and cooperation may be hard to rely upon. It doesn't exactly support the case for reforming iron-fisted governments in the Middle East, either: "Imagine the National Security Council's democracy promoter, Elliott Abrams, arriving in Cairo to warn Mubarak not to rig national elections or imprison democratic dissidents," Gerecht writes, "while CIA personnel fraternally engage Egyptian security and intelligence officials in questioning al Qaeda suspects on Guam."

But what's the most important reason why we should eliminate rendition? Because, says Gerecht, we're better off if we keep control of the whole game and do the necessary torturing ourselves.

"A cardinal rule of the intelligence business -- many case officers would call it the first principle of collecting human intelligence -- is to maintain control of the individuals you are debriefing or interrogating," he writes. "It is for this reason that, historically, the CIA has looked askance at 'liaison' intelligence and always has clearly marked, at least for consumers within the intelligence community, the foreign provenance of such information."

Arguing that torture is in fact effective for gathering intelligence -- about which a great number of his colleagues disagree -- Gerecht says the question we ultimately must ask is, "Does rendition do anything for us that we cannot do better ourselves?"

"Now, it may well be true," he says, "that rendition sometimes produced intelligence information that was valuable against al Qaeda. But surely the Central Intelligence Agency could have obtained the same information if it had applied similar interrogative techniques. With in-house control, the agency could have had greater confidence in the information collected, since it would have been guiding and monitoring the process 24/7. From the perspective of an intelligence officer, it makes absolutely no operational sense to have someone torture for you if you have the option of doing the dirty work yourself."

From Gitmo to Abu Ghraib, not to mention any number of secret U.S. prisons reportedly dotting the globe, we know full well that the Bush administration hasn't given up that option -- it has vastly expanded it. Perhaps, then, the biggest worry we now face regarding our clandestine national security practices is how to save ourselves from plunging irreversibly into an ever-deepening moral and legal black hole.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Abu Ghraib Cia Guantanamo Osama Bin Laden Terrorism Torture War Room