The rendition row: history and hypocrisy

‘This illustrates how dangerously out of touch the US State Department is with most of Western opinion’ Andrew Tyrie, chairman of Britain’s all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary renditions

By Hannah Strange in London for ISN Security Watch (22/03/06)

As Europe probes allegations that US intelligence flights involved in renditions of terror suspects passed through its territory, Washington is moving to bolster the case for the practice, which it insists is an essential tool in the fight against terrorism.

The policy of extraordinary rendition – under which individuals suspected of terrorism are transferred to detention facilities abroad – has been denounced by critics as immoral, uncivilized, and counterproductive. But the US administration is now attacking what it calls the ‘recharacterization’ of the policy, which it says was for decades widely regarded as an acceptable, and even heroic practice.

Renditions were ‘an important tool for all countries in fighting terrorism’, a senior US State Department official told ISN Security Watch earlier this month. It had been practiced ‘for many decades, by many countries’, and until its recent recharacterization had been an ‘accepted practice and not a dirty word’, he said.

‘The purpose of rendition is not to send people where they could be tortured,’ he said. ‘It is to ensure that people who are wanted for terrorist acts around the world are brought to justice.’

The practice had been reviewed and upheld by the European Court of Human Rights, he said, specifically in the case of Carlos the Jackal, a terrorist captured in Sudan in 1994 and rendered back to France, where he is now imprisoned. It used to be that finding terror suspects and bringing them to justice ‘was a heroic thing to do [‘] people were applauding this’, he continued.

Asked why terror suspects would be transferred abroad for interrogation if it was not to evade human rights protections, the official said that in the majority of cases, renditions took place because an individual captured in one country was wanted by another country. ‘What happens is, all intelligence agencies around the world share information with each other and cooperate with each other,’ he said.

If an individual was picked up by the security services of one country, which then discovered that person was wanted by or was on the watch list of another country, then instead of simply letting them go the security services would transfer them over, he explained.

“The United States is basically the only country in the world that has the intelligence services and the resources to perform such a service,” he added. If someone was wanted in the US, or suspected by the US authorities of links to terrorism or terrorist-related activities, he or she would in most cases be rendered back to the US, he said.

The official said there could be some cases in which individuals were held by another country on behalf of the US. However, he stressed, if the US had any doubt about the recipient nation’s human rights record, or had reasonable grounds to believe the individual could be mistreated, they would seek specific guarantees from that nation.

Questioned as to why such individuals could not be extradited, the official said that intelligence was often insufficient to extradite a person; therefore rendition was used to “get people who are beyond the reach of the law”.

Giving a theoretical example of someone found to have received a telephone call from a person who then shortly after committed a terrorist attack, he asked: “Do we let someone like that simply disappear off into the ether? Frankly the rest of the world would not want people like that to be floating around.”

‘Happy hunting ground’

The controversy surrounding the practice continues to escalate in the EU, where the bloc’s human rights watchdog is investigating allegations that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated hundreds of rendition flights through European territory and detained terror suspects in secret prisons on European soil.

Dick Marty, the Swiss senator leading the Council of Europe investigation, said in a preliminary report in January that European governments were almost certainly aware of the rendition practice, which seemed to have been applied to more than 100 people in recent years. On 1 March, Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis described Europe as a “happy hunting ground” for foreign intelligence agencies.

The allegations are highly embarrassing for European governments, which continue to be barraged with questions over the practice. Britain, which has doggedly resisted any investigation into the claims, was last week forced by opposition parties to give details of some 200 CIA flights that had passed through British military airbases, some of which were en route to destinations such as Marrackech, Tripoli, Doha, and Islamabad.

Elsewhere in Europe, the scandal is threatening to cause a severe rift in transatlantic relations.

The Italian Justice Ministry has requested permission to interview 22 CIA operatives in connection with the 2003 kidnapping of cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, who prosecutors say was transported to Germany and Egypt after being snatched from the streets of Milan. Ministers have so far resisted pressure to request the extradition of the agents, but the affair has the potential to turn into a festering sore for US-Italian ties.

Wading through the hypocrisy

Across the Atlantic, the attempts of European governments to distance themselves from the policy have not been well-received.

Accusing European governments of hypocrisy, the State Department official said the US had provided Europe with enormous amounts of intelligence gained through the practice. He confirmed that US rendition flights had passed through Europe with the explicit knowledge of European governments. There was a “sense of aggrievement” in Washington that European governments and citizens had benefited from information obtained through rendition, yet were now expressing “shock” at the policy.

“European governments and publics expect there to be broad, mutual intelligence cooperation,” he said. “These are simply not the things that are talked about publicly.” The US administration was concerned about the characterization of renditions as being wrong, illegal, and always improper, he said, acknowledging the potential of that “misconception” for undermining efforts to spread democracy.

“This image is damaging, but rather than stop doing them, we are trying to emphasize that there is value for all our societies, that we are not just doing it for ourselves,” the State Department official said.

But Andrew Tyrie, chairman of Britain’s all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary renditions and a Conservative parliamentarian, said the official’s arguments were inadvertently “a devastating indictment of what the American administration has been doing”.

“This illustrates how dangerously out of touch the US State Department is with most of Western opinion,” he said. At the heart of the debate was the issue of the policy’s effect on the fight against terrorism, he told ISN Security Watch.

“Are we influencing the opinion of moderates in the communities from which these people are being taken, and are we therefore generating a higher risk of terrorism with these activities rather than reducing it?” he asked.

“That is the balance sheet, and no one has yet shown many positive entries in the ledger.”

Tyrie challenged Washington to explain why individuals suspected by US authorities of links to terrorism had to be questioned extra-territorially.

“If they have information that can help save lives, why can they not conduct these interrogations on US soil?” he asked. “Furthermore, if the US administration thinks that heavy-handed methods can obtain higher quality information, then why don’t they explain that to the American people and change the law to allow them to be conducted in the United States, within the framework of the law?”

Lord Timothy Garden, a former British assistant chief of defense staff and Liberal Democrat defense spokesperson, said the policy was “completely counterproductive”. Asked by ISN Security Watch if there was any merit to the policy in security terms, Garden replied: “Absolutely none at all. You can take the moral view, the legal view, but just in the practical view, it is completely counterproductive and always has been.”

The “only reason” to transport terror suspects abroad was to evade human rights protections and allow for more aggressive interrogation techniques, he said.

He continued: “Information obtained under torture is invariably unreliable. There are much better and more effective methods of interrogation.” If an individual was being tortured during interrogation and was asked for a list of names, if he or she did not have such information they would simply invent it, he said.

The policy was also counterproductive in terms of the image of the US around the world, Garden said, as it was extremely difficult to promote democracy around the world while simultaneously engaged in this kind of “immoral and uncivilized” practice.

A former British government intelligence analyst, Crispin Black, told ISN Security Watch that he saw no problem with using rendition as “an easy form of extradition”, by which an individual was transported to a country where he was wanted by authorities. But Black, who until 2002 briefed Downing Street on the terror threat, said such cases were “pretty rare”. Far more common was the use of rendition to evade legal restrictions on interrogations, he said.

It appeared that in building a case for the practice of rendition, US officials were trying to sanitize the outward face of the policy in order to distract from the more distasteful aspects, he added.

“If it is for the purposes of torture [?] any intelligence-based reason for that seems to be redundant,” he said.

“It is a mistake because on the micro-level, we know through our own experience that torturing suspects or using heavy interrogation techniques rarely gives you the information you require.”

Black said he believed that European governments had been complicit with the practice, but raised questions about how much useful intelligence they had received as a result of it. Had intelligence obtained through rendition thwarted a major terrorist attack, it would have been highly publicized, by the US authorities in particular, he said.

“The Americans would say that [Europe had benefited] wouldn’t they? [?] I’m a little skeptical.”

In Britain, the issue of rendition had reinforced suspicion about the role and impartiality of domestic intelligence agencies, which were now not trusted by large sections of the community, he said. This was highly damaging to the fight against terrorism, in which it was important to gain trust and cooperation, of the British Muslim community in particular, he said.

“It is a battle for hearts and minds. We’ve got to maintain the moral high ground and this is just one other wedge that has been driven into [it].”

With the affair continuing to develop, and rendition becoming a familiar term to citizens the world over, it seems the debate over the practice will rage for considerable time to come.

But with reports continuing to emerge of detainees suffering torture at secret detention facilities across the globe, the US government faces a considerable challenge in convincing the world that rendition is not the unscrupulous, underhand practice that currently stains its international reputation.

Hannah Strange is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch in London.