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May 18, 2005

On Rendition

Easily the most disturbing part of the President's April 28th press conference was the question (and the President's answer) on rendition: the practice of outsourcing interrogation of suspected terrorists to nations known to torture detainees.

It was disturbing for two reasons. The first was that there is no easy answer to this question. An entire press conference could have been devoted to exploring the moral issues involved, and so it was rather like sandbagging Mr. Bush to bring it up in the first place. The second was that the President was clearly uncomfortable answering the question at all, and it showed.

Rendition is nothing new. The practice predates the Bush administration and 9/11, but the heightened scrutiny directed at our military and intelligence services has made rendition an increasingly attractive option. The American public has a schizophrenic approach to national security. We demand our intelligence services divine, as if by osmosis, any and all threats lurking in our midst. Yet we want a kindler, gentler Guantanamo Bay. Free the detainees! How dare you question them harshly! Don't touch that Koran without your gloves! Give detainees access to U.S. courts and American lawyers! In the Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht comments:

If we are to be brutally honest, the compelling reason why Washington has backed rendition is that the Clinton and Bush administrations wanted our Arab allies to do what we can no longer countenance by our own hand (and anyone who thinks Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib disprove this point is ignorant of the history of professionally administered torture). If we understand rendition as do many CIA intelligence officers, we know it has two great advantages. The outsourcing of torture is, especially for the Americans who must otherwise administer the pain, easily the more attractive.
The other big plus is that rendition eliminates the Guantanamo detention problem (or, in the case of the Clinton administration, criminal court cases that national security adviser Samuel Berger always feared losing). Proving guilt in a U.S. civilian or military court through the use of even rock-solid, politely obtained intelligence can be extremely difficult. Proving guilt in such a court with the use of similarly hard intelligence gained through physical abuse is impossible.

As with McCain-Feingold, attempts to reform the system didn't solve the "problem", they just caused the system to find new ways to get the job done. And arguably, when "the job" is national security, this may not be a bad thing (no matter how distateful the means) even if no one wishes to come right out and say it.

And then there are those distressing grey areas:

Rendition also solves the problem of how to deal with minor-league would-be Islamic terrorists or guerrillas who may or may not have had the United States in their sights. These are individuals who are guilty by association with al Qaeda and its allied groups but would never, ever be prosecuted in an American civilian or military court for lack of legally admissible evidence.

But is torture ever justified? Can the end ever justify a morally indefensible means? Many say "no", yet history has shown that torture has many times yielded useful information. Torture victims themselves say no one can hold out forever - at some point the pain simply becomes too great. The will is broken.

And the persistence of the practice itself argues that it must have worked enough times to justify its repeated use through the ages. Geracht argues that rendition makes no sense since it results in the U.S. losing control over the subject. In essence, he says if we are going to allow detainees to be tortured, we should torture clandestinely and in violation of our own laws. It is hard to see how such cynical debasement of the rule of law can be a better solution:

Now, it may well be true, as Scheuer argues, 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. (And the United States certainly has the capacity to "false flag" an interrogation--make it appear that non-Americans are in charge--if this is deemed advantageous.) Since the highest-profile al Qaeda subjects, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, both arrested in Pakistan, were quickly rendered to the Americans, it seems plain that in the case of the most important assets, we insist on maintaining control ourselves. If rendition were operationally superior to in-house aggressive interrogation, the CIA would have been derelict in not leaving these two masterminds in foreign hands.

Of course, many argue that torture is an unreliable and ineffective means of gaining intelligence. Every time I hear this argument I am reminded of the old saw about democracy being an inefficient form of government (yes of course it is - until you consider the alternatives):

As for those who believe that torture itself is an ineffective intelligence tool--and a wide swath of the intelligence community, after the Abu Ghraib scandal and before President Bush's reelection, seemed to think so--rendition makes no sense whatsoever. It would amount to the United States willfully diminishing the flow of reliable information. John Negroponte appears to be in this camp. He remarked in his confirmation hearing, "Not only is torture illegal and reprehensible, but even if it were not so, I don't think it's an effective way of producing useful information." If Negroponte sincerely believes what he said, then the practice of rendition is over.

The CIA, however, may know something that Ambassador Negroponte will reluctantly grow to appreciate. Anyone who has had serious pain intentionally inflicted upon him or her--and clandestine-service junior officers receive a small but sufficient dose in their training--knows that the truth has an imprint upon the brain that can withstand the distress, confusion, and loneliness of aggressive interrogation. Lies don't have the same tenacity. There is a reason why the former prisoners of war who briefed my junior-officer class on the pitfalls of imprisonment warned that the truth will come out. No professional intelligence officer alive wants to torture people. No moral man isn't repelled by the damage done to the victim and the perpetrator. But sadism and primitive notions of justice and salvation aren't the only reasons why men, particularly men in danger, have had recourse to torture for millennia.

I felt for the President on April 28th. I was glad he was uncomfortable - visibly so - when answering that question on rendition. He should be. I liked him better for his awkwardness, his obvious inability to smooth it over, as Bill Clinton would have. I also thought he gave about as good an answer as he could in the short time he had available.

We are following the letter of the law. He does have a duty to defend this country. And he is going to do whatever it takes to keep us safe. I do believe he rather hopes these countries aren't torturing detainees, and I suspect he may know some of them do, but of course he cannot say that. He also left unsaid that we cooperate with other nations in returning some of these detainees to their country of origin, or deport them with the permission of their native countries: morally superior countries like Canada, for instance.

The Executive branch is between a rock and a hard place. We expect them to keep us safe, but we really don't want to hear the ugly details of how they do it. But God help them if they let one of the bad guys get through the net on their watch. The retroactive hindsight of senior statesmen like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry and Joe Biden will come down on them from on high, telling them what miserable failures they were not to have prevented the unpreventable.

We tie their hands and hold them responsible at the same time. And then we are surprised when they are human enough to squirm at things we wouldn't have the stones to do.

I'm still waiting to hear how the critics would tackle this one.

Posted by Cassandra at May 18, 2005 06:07 AM

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Tracked on June 3, 2005 03:41 PM


As with several of your posts, I am going to have to read this one several times. To maintain security, there is the Catch-22 of accountability for the detainees in getting RELIABLE intel and treating them humanely.

Whatever happened to sodium pentathol?

The point I am trying to make is that we DO have the cojones to take care of it, and our consciences are pricked because we would rather not have to.

Here is my take on it: They come near me and my family, that is what guns are for.

Keep coming and there will be a war. If by detaining and obtaining informatin that yours and mine are protected and war is averted, then it saves lives. Period.

Overly simplistic, but it seems to me the greater good to prevent with information than to blunder needlessy and stupidly into an escalating conflict where everyone suffers. In this case, the ends would justify the means, thanks to Niccolo and Sen Tzu.

Posted by: La Femme Crickita [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 18, 2005 09:38 AM

I haven't written about this because I've been wrestling with it for about a year, Cricket.

I'm still not there yet. But like many difficult issues, we can't duck it entirely - you get to a point where the rubber meets the road and someone has to make a decision. Do you follow the law or not? What happens when your duty to follow the law conflicts with your duty to protect the public?

I am a straightforward person and I admit I've sometimes longed for Bush to simply haul one of these asshats on national TV and say, "OK, here is a terrorist. He won't talk. We suspect he knows X, Y, and Z but according to the law, we can't make him talk and we can't prove he's guilty and we can no longer hold his sorry ass, to as of 12 noon today I am releasing him at Ground Zero in New York. Eat sh*t and die, America."

And then he should take the Presidential Seal and throw it to the ground in disgust and walk away forever and go back to Crawford TX and chop a mess of wood and let the "experts" like Richard Clarke and John Kerry step in and pick up the pieces.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 18, 2005 09:45 AM

And to clarify matters, I know he would never do that. And we will continue to crucify him because he's trying to find the honorable middle ground.

The problem is, there isn't one.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 18, 2005 09:47 AM


We know Clinton had testicles in the anatomical sense, but not tacticles.


Posted by: La Femme Crickita [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 18, 2005 12:50 PM

No, there is no easy answer. It is a choice between two evils. Actively causing the prisoner pain versus passively allowing your own citizens pain. Personally, I care much less about a terrorist's pain than my fellow citizen's.

Civilized people do not enjoy viciousness or desire a gov't that is either. It is right that we are squimish about it. It would be a dangerous society that wasn't.

I can't find the exact quote but we must remember that war is brutal. The more brutal it is the sooner it will be over. Trying to fight a "nice" war will only prolong it and cost more lives on both sides. As horrible as nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, it probably saved lives on both sides.

Posted by: Masked MenaceĀ© [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 18, 2005 09:00 PM

I love what the purists say: A choice between the lesser of two evils is still evil. And this is among Christians who are against the war and think that our POTUS is the anti Christ and Cheney or Halliburton are taking turns at being the beast.

My response to them was that even God purged Canaan after purging the Israelites. And that was more than an ethnic cleanse. Their response is that Bush isn't a prophet. Okay, if that is the case then why are religious leaders supportive of the POTUS?

I seriously doubt he threatened their tax exempt status as some are claiming. Or had others do it.
I truly believe that there is more to this.

Posted by: La_Femme_Crickta at May 19, 2005 05:45 PM

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