The L.A. Times, Obama & renditions

A new report, celebrated by the Right, claims that Obama has ordered the Bush rendition program to continue. That report is wildly inaccurate.

Published February 2, 2009 7:54PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Other commitments prevented me from writing today (in particular, I finalized the proposal and outline for my next book, an event that prompts great joyousness).  But numerous people have emailed all day, and otherwise expressed concern, about this Los Angeles Times article from yesterday that claims -- citing anonymous "current and former U.S. intelligence officials" -- that the Obama administration has preserved and continued the Bush administration's "rendition" program that created so much (justifiable) outrage around the world.

The L.A. Times article is wildly exaggerated and plainly inaccurate.  Harper's Scott Horton and The Washington Monthly's Hilzoy have typically thorough explanations as to why that is the case.  Anyone with any doubts should read both of their commentaries.  Suffice to say, the objections to the Bush "extraordinary rendition" program were that "rendered" individuals were abducted and then either (a) sent to countries where they would likely be tortured and/or (b) disappeared into secret U.S. camps ("black sites") or sent to Guantanamo and accorded no legal process of any kind.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Obama will continue any of that and, as Hilzoy documents, there is ample basis to believe he will not.  Unfortunately, I don't have the time today to dissect the Times' claims in detail, but Horton and Hilzoy both say virtually everything that should be said on the topic.

I do, though, want to add two brief points:

Firstit is very important to keep in mind that there are numerous factions with a very compelling interest in claiming that the Obama administration is preserving and continuing the most extreme Bush "counter-terrorism" policies, regardless of whether or not it's true:

(1) Bush followers eager to claim that their leader has been vindicated because Obama is replicating his policies;

(2) People who have long argued that there is no difference between the parties, that "the system" is irrevocably corrupted, and that Obama will change nothing, who are eager to claim that their "no-difference" worldview has already been vindicated by the 11-day old administration ("See!  After 11 days, it's proven that Obama is no different than Bush, just as we've been saying");

(3) Members of the intelligence community who do not want any new limits imposed on their activities and thus, hiding behind anonymity, use these leaks to pressure Obama not to impose them ("intelligence officials say that Obama is just pretending to change these policies in order to fool/placate the Left, but he knows and believes we urgently need these powers to keep the U.S. safe and he will therefore keep them in place"); and,

(4) Establishment media figures, eager to depict Obama as supportive of, rather than hostile to, prevailing policies, because they spent the last eight years supporting and enabling those policies as integral servants of the political establishment and do not want Obama's election to be perceived as a repudiation of that establishment and its various behaviors.

I want to be clear:  none of this is to say that Obama won't continue many of the worst Bush policies.  He very well might (even in the case of rendition) and, in other cases, he probably will.  Vigilance in this regard is absolutely required.  The point here is that there are all sorts of groups eager to claim that Obama has already decided to embrace Bush policies before there is any actual evidence that he has done so, or -- as here -- even when there is evidence that he hasn't.  For that reason, these reports about what Obama "intends" to do ought to be taken with a huge dose of skepticism, especially where, as here, it is fed to uninformed, gullible reporters by anonymous intelligence operatives.  

As I find myself repeating quite often, it makes no sense to attack (or praise) Obama for predicted actions.  It's possible that the group I referenced in item (2) above may turn out to be right, or it's possible that those who see Obama as some transcendent, transformative change agent will be.  I doubt either of those two extremes will be vindicated, but what should determine one's judgment on that question is what Obama actually does, not what anonymous reports claim he "intends" to do.  Those who reflexively criticize every Obama action because they predicted long ago that he would be the same as Bush and want that prediction to be vindicated are but the opposite side of the same irrational coin as those who find ways to justify everything Obama does because they long ago placed the type of faith in him that no political leader should ever enjoy.

Second, I have a question for those who believe that rendition, in all cases (even when it's not used to disappear individuals or send individuals to countries where they will be tortured), is inappropriate and wrong:

Suppose (for the sake of discussion) that: (a) the U.S. learns exactly where Osama bin Laden is located in Pakistan; (b) there is ample evidence that bin Laden (i) perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and (ii) is in the advanced stages of planning new imminent attacks on the U.S.; and (c) the Pakistani Government is either unwilling or unable to apprehend bin Laden in order to extradite him to the U.S. for trial.  Further suppose that efforts to compel the Pakistanis to do so through the U.N. are blocked (because, say, China or Russia vetoes any actions).

What, if anything, is the U.S. (under current facts) permitted to do about Osama bin Laden, who -- we're assuming for purposes of these discussions -- clearly perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and is in the process of plotting new attacks?  As far as I can tell, the options would be: (a) drop a bomb on him and kill him with no due process; (b) enter Pakistan, apprehend him, and bring him to the U.S. for a trial (i.e., rendition); or (c) do nothing, and just leave him be.  

Those who are arguing that rendition is illegitimate in all cases (rather than in the torture-enabling and disappearance-causing forms used by Bush) have the obligation to answer that question specifically (and the same question would pertain to a common criminal -- say, a mass murderer -- who flees the U.S. to a country which refuses to comply with its extradition obligations to send the accused murderer to the U.S. for trial).


UPDATE:  One other point:  the claim is often made that there was nothing new about the Bush administration's "extraordinary rendition" program because they did nothing that the Clinton administration, which pioneered the program, didn't also do.  The record in this regard is unclear in several respects.  Clearly, nothing even remotely approaching the scope of the Bush administration's program was attempted before 2001, and there's no evidence, at least that I'm aware of, that any abducted individuals were simply "disappeared" to American-run facilities.

But as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer documented, the U.S. most certainly did abduct and "render" people to torturing countries under the Clinton administration.  Here's but one example she describes:

On September 13, 1995, U.S. agents helped kidnap Talaat Fouad Qassem, one of Egypt’s most wanted terrorists, in Croatia. Qassem had fled to Europe after being linked by Egypt to the assassination of Sadat; he had been sentenced to death in absentia. Croatian police seized Qassem in Zagreb and handed him over to U.S. agents, who interrogated him aboard a ship cruising the Adriatic Sea and then took him back to Egypt. Once there, Qassem disappeared. There is no record that he was put on trial. Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist who covers human-rights issues, said, “We believe he was executed.

She also details the 1998 abduction of numerous individuals in a joint operation by the C.I.A. and Albanian government:

Over the next few months, according to the Journal, Albanian security forces, working with U.S. agents, killed one suspect and captured Attiya and four others. These men were bound, blindfolded, and taken to an abandoned airbase, then flown by jet to Cairo for interrogation. Attiya later alleged that he suffered electrical shocks to his genitals, was hung from his limbs, and was kept in a cell in filthy water up to his knees. Two other suspects, who had been sentenced to death in absentia, were hanged.

Yet in those cases, Mayer suggests (citing CIA agent Michael Scheuer, who designed the rendition program) that there was legal process underlying the abductions, as they had all been convicted of serious crimes, mostly in abstentia.  There, the purpose was to return convicted criminals to their homeland, not to have them tortured for interrogation purposes.  By contrast, few if any of the individuals "rendered" during the Bush years were convicted of anything.  Mayer also cites claims that there were numerous safeguards to ensure no innocent person was "rendered" -- safeguards which disappeared during the Bush years.  It's difficult to assess how valid those claims are.

Critically, Richard Clarke, the whistle-blowing terrorism expert in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, in his 2004 book Against All Enemies, conveyed an obviously disturbing scene that he says took place in the 1993 (.pdf - p. 27): 

As always, it's worth underscoring that while the blatant disregard for, and systematic violations of, international norms were far worse in the Bush years than ever before, that behavior in general, in the U.S. long pre-dated January, 2001.

UPDATE II:  In comments, Ikonstan smartly modifies the hypothetical and asks:

Suppose (for the sake of discussion) that in 2007: (a) Afghanistan learns exactly where George W. Bush is located in the U.S.; (b) there is ample evidence that W. (i) illegally detained and tortured its citizens and (ii) is continuing these policies with the intention of doing so indefinitely; and (c) the U.S. government (both Dems and Republicans) is either unwilling or unable to apprehend W. in order to extradite him to the the Netherlands for trial. Further suppose that efforts to compel the U.S. to do so through the U.N. are blocked (because, say, the U.S. vetoes any actions).

What, if anything, is Afghanistan (under current facts) permitted to do about Bush, who -- we're assuming for purposes of these discussions -- clearly committed war crimes and is continuing to do so? . . . .Why are the rules different for us?

Those who contend that the U.S. would have the right to "render" Osama bin Laden from Pakistan in my example should address whether Afghanistan (or Iraq, or any other country whose citizens were tortured by the U.S.) would have the same right with regard to George Bush.


UPDATE III:  Last night, Rachel Maddow spoke with Scott Horton (a writer with Harper's and, more relevantly, a long-time international human rights lawyer) about many of these issues (as a reminder:  I'll be on Rachel's show this Wednesday night, presumably to talk about some of these matters).  Please also note that (at least in many circumstances) to ask questions about an argument -- as I'm doing here with regard to the view that rendition is always wrong and illegitimate in all cases -- is not to embrace or reject the argument; it's to ask questions about it:


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