Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

02/02/2009 (1:30 pm)

Obama Embraces Extraordinary Rendition

It was during the Clinton years that America began the practice of sending international prisoners — prisoners detained because of their connection to international terrorists — to foreign nations so they could be interrogated regarding what they knew about their own network of co-terrorists. This practice, called extraordinary rendition, has always been troubling because the nations to which we send these prisoners are far more likely than we are to torture or simply murder their prisoners. The Bush administration asserted rules regarding rendition, and constructed interrogation facilities of its own to handle prisoners captured during the worldwide war against Wahabist radicals.

Now the Obama administration has announced its plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and all the secret CIA detention facilities around the world. Over the weekend, however, reporters noticed that Obama’s Executive Orders regarding the handling of prisoners left open the possibility of extraordinary rendition.

From the LA Times:

Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said that the rendition program might be poised to play an expanded role going forward because it was the main remaining mechanism — aside from Predator missile strikes — for taking suspected terrorists off the street…

“Obviously you need to preserve some tools — you still have to go after the bad guys,” said an Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the legal reasoning. “The legal advisors working on this looked at rendition. It is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice…”

Despite concern about rendition, Obama’s prohibition of many other counter-terrorism tools could prompt intelligence officers to resort more frequently to the “transitory” technique.

Rightward blogs that picked up on it are commenting wryly about the inconsistency, or in Moe Lane’s case at Red State, practically screaming in rage. I understand the irony here, but my concern touches problems beyond the mere inconsistency of leftists.

Simply put, we’re stuck with using the worst of our interrogation tools, and we’re increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood that our detainees will be mistreated.

From the LA Times again:

CIA veterans involved in renditions characterized the program as important but of limited intelligence-gathering use. It is used mainly for terrorism suspects not considered valuable enough for the CIA to keep, they said.

“The reason we did interrogations [ourselves] is because renditions for the most part weren’t very productive,” said a former senior CIA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

The most valuable intelligence on Al Qaeda came from prisoners who were in CIA custody and questioned by agency experts, the official said. Once prisoners were turned over to Egypt, Jordan or elsewhere, the agency had limited influence over how much intelligence was shared, how prisoners were treated and whether they were later released.

“In some ways, [rendition] is the worst option,” the former official said. “If they are in U.S. hands, you have a lot of checks and balances, medics and lawyers. Once you turn them over to another service, you lose control.”

CIA seems to know pretty well how to interrogate prisoners. It’s not clear that our foreign neighbors are as good at this as we are. If they are, though, they don’t always tell us what they’ve discovered. Either way, it’s hit or miss regarding whether we get intelligence back.

More troubling is the torture aspect. The notion that the Bush administration chose to engage in full-scale torture is laughable; as far as we know, the total amount of time prisoners have spent on the waterboard while in US custody is around 5 minutes. That’s not five minutes per prisoner; it’s five minutes total for the entire program. On the contrary, most of our interrogation tactics are completely benign. One of the more common tactics involves sitting the prisoner in a La-Z-Boy recliner, giving him cold drinks, and having a grandmotherly woman ask him questions. I know this sounds like “the Comfy Chair” from Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition skit, but I’m not joking; the La-Z-Boy is offered as a reward for cooperation, and apparently works pretty well on some detainees.

I’m sure President Obama is sincere regarding his concern that prisoners not be tortured, or at least, as sincere as he knows how to be; it seems likely to me, though, that he’s naive about foreign nations’ willingness to keep their word regarding treatment of prisoners we turn over. When we’re interrogating prisoners ourselves, we have control of the process, and can limit the cruelty. We lose that control when we send prisoners elsewhere. This is why the humane policy of a humane nation required that we build the detention facilities; the Bush administration was protecting civility.

I know there are those among us who don’t care about prisoners being tortured by American personnel, who point to the suffering of the victims of the terrorists’ plans and say the prisoners should suffer as much as the victims. I’m not among them. My own position is that we’re justified in doing what we need to do in order to keep ourselves safe, but wise and moral to put in place the checks and balances that prevent excesses. The danger that we could someday become as cruel as our adversaries is real, and the restraint built into the system is the proof that we’ve not fallen so far.

It’s ironic that the liberal policy that claims to be restoring civility is actually likely to result in greater brutality to the detainees, while providing less information with which to secure our safety. This is hardly an unusual irony from liberal policies, though; it’s unfortunately the rule rather than the exception that liberal policies produce the opposite of that at which they aim, but make liberals feel morally superior in the process. With the left, it’s all about appearances, whereas with the right it’s more often about results.

More to the point, the building of our own interrogation mechanism was a hard decision that needed to be made, and President Bush had the courage to make it; first President Clinton, and now President Obama, display cowardice by avoiding the hard decision and simply pawning the responsibility for harsh interrogation onto foreigners.

All that said, I am curious to see whether the leftists who shrieked for Cheney’s head on a platter will raise a finger of objection to Obama’s hedging on rolling back the “regime of torture.” I’m not holding my breath, though. In the discussion I had with a progressive blogger on the subject, he acknowledged that Democratic Congressmen were hypocrites to have privately approved the interrogation regimen and then publicly to have denounced them, but he failed to notice that this made those Congressmen liable for prosecution along with the Vice President. If Cheney actually committed war crimes or violated American law by endorsing “torture,” then the Congressmen providing oversight surely made themselves accessories to those crimes by approving the procedures, and should likewise be prosecuted. I’ve heard no calls for prosecuting Democrats, though, and I don’t expect to.

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February 2, 2009 @ 2:10 pm #

I’ve not yet noticed any, if there indeed any, editorials that critically analyze the substance of Obama’s “closing down Gitmo”. It seems that the bottom line is that he’s basically said, “Yes, I do hope to close it at some point in the future once I’ve had time to study the issue and see what the alternatives are.” This again is a feel good gesture designed to glean credit for doing the right thing without really having to do it. Unsurprisingly, there hasn’t been much analysis along these lines in the media. Maybe I’ve just missed it.

Are we far above the level of junior high school elections, where people often got elected because they promised to “challenge” the school’s administration, or “get in the face” of the headmaster, or force the faculty to roll back the policy of requiring boys to get haircuts, and other such empty promises?

February 2, 2009 @ 5:58 pm #

Actually RM, I would say the level of a high school election is exactly where we are. Pres. Obama ran a campaign as essentially the “It” candidate with no real policy goals on the agenda beyond bywords and catchphrases. To run simply on how the elctorate feels about you personally is to run a straight personality contest, which is what he ran.

Anyone else remembering the old adage that has been mentioned on this blog quite a few times that people get not the government they need, but the one they deserve?

As far as renditions go, as mentioned in the main post, this goes to a problem I have always had with Liberals. By and large, the ideal of a conservative/traditionalist is that you go with the tried and tested methods to govern or even live in the best way for the most people.

A Traditionalist, when confronted with a new idea would look to the past to see if anything like this had been tried before. He will then make a judgement on whether it worked and also what the results were in order to decide whether the “new idea” was in fact worthwhile. Most traditionalists know that there truly are not that many “new ideas” merely recycled old ones.

A modern liberal has nothing but contempt for those who came before, both personally as well as their ideas. So in effect, they never learn anything. This explains why they are constantly trying the same old tired, pointless exercises over and over again. It is not the ideas who failed, but rather the people who implemented them.

If renditions are indeed a poor way to gather information from prisoners, then they should be discontinued simply from a utilitarian standpoint.

On the moral side of things, just because you are not doing the torturing, it means nothing from a moral standpoint. If you KNOW with certainty that someone is going to be tortured and/or murdered when you had a prisoner over to them, the prisoners blood is on your hands as surely as it is the other governments. You knew what would happen and you facilitated it, you are equally damned.

This is the reason I could never be a modern liberal: the moral gymnastics require a bit more flexibility than I could ever manage.

February 2, 2009 @ 7:22 pm #


Greenwald on the rendition issue is VERY worth reading as a qualifying article to the LA Times piece. Also, the two articles that Greenwald links to.

February 2, 2009 @ 7:49 pm #


You know what I think of Glenn Greenwald and of Scott Horton (ok, maybe you don’t know what I think of Horton, but it’s similar to what I think of Greenwald.) And as expected, these pieces seem like mighty, full-throttle attempts to find something, anything, that distinguishes Obama’s rendition policy from Bush’s. Their attempts are interesting, but not very convincing.

Greenwald really doesn’t raise an argument, he just cites two articles: Horton in Harper’s, and Hilzoy in Washington Monthly. The Hilzoy article attempts to differentiate by citing the “clear language” of the Executive Orders, demanding that there not be “substantial grounds” that the detainee will be tortured, that nothing is to be construed as overthrowing the 4th Amendment, and so on. The problem is, this is precisely the policy articulated by the CIA under the Bush administration. Hilzoy fails completely.

Horton resorts to outlandish claims in his attempt to differentiate, positing an extraordinary rendition program in addition to just plain, old renditions, in which

..a central feature of this program was rendition to torture, namely that the prisoner was turned over to cooperating foreign governments with the full understanding that those governments would apply techniques that even the Bush Administration considers to be torture. This practice is a felony under current U.S. law, but was made a centerpiece of Bush counterterrorism policy.

Just generally, “extraordinary rendition” refers to the practice of detaining a suspect and moving his venue without going through the ordinary extradition procedure; there’s nothing in the words, or in the policy, regarding what happens to the detainee once moved. I’d be interested in seeing evidence that such a program as Horton described even existed; certainly the claim that this was “made a centerpiece” of Bush counterterrorism policy is, at best, a wild exaggeration, and might be an outright lie. From what I’ve read, the Bush administration tightened rather than loosened earlier rules regarding to where a prisoner might be rendered, and established the CIA and Guantanamo facilities in order to avoid the need for rendition.

Horton is the demented moonbat who insists there was a Rove-inspired plot to smear former Alabama governor Don Siegelman executed three years after Siegelman left the state house. I don’t expect either accuracy or honesty from him.

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