Extraordinary Rendition, Extraordinary Mistake

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Foreign Policy in Focus

Extraordinary Rendition, Extraordinary Mistake

by
Sangitha McKenzie Millar

Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, was living in Sydney with his wife and four children when he took a trip alone to Pakistan to find a home for his family. When Habib boarded a bus for the Islamabad airport to return home, Pakistani police seized him and took him to a police station, where he was subjected to various crude torture techniques, including electric shocks and beating. At one point, he was forced to hang by the arms above a drum-like mechanism that administered an electric shock when touched. Pakistani police asked him repeatedly if he was with al-Qaeda, and if he trained in Afghanistan. Habib responded "No" over and over until he passed out.

After 15 days in the Pakistani prison, Habib was transferred to U.S. agents who flew him to Cairo. When he arrived, Omar Solaimon, chief of Egyptian security, informed him that Egypt receives $10 million for every confessed terrorist they hand over to the United States. Habib stated that during his five months in Egypt, "there was no interrogation, only torture."  His skin was burned with cigarettes and he was threatened with dogs, beaten, and repeatedly shocked with a stun gun. During this time, he heard American voices in the prison, but Egyptians were in charge of the torture. In Michael Otterman's book American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (Pluto Press 2007), Habib said he was drugged and began to hallucinate: "I feel like a dead person. I was gone. I become crazy." He remembers admitting things to interrogators, anything they asked: "I didn't care ... at this point I was ready to die."

He was transferred back to the custody of U.S. agents in May 2002. They flew him first to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then to Kandahar. After several weeks, American agents sent Habib to Guantánamo Bay. Three British detainees who have since been released from the prison described Habib as being in a "catastrophic state" when he arrived. Most of his fingernails were missing and he regularly bled from the nose, mouth, and ears while he slept.

Habib was held at Guantánamo Bay until late 2004, when he was charged with training 9/11 hijackers in martial arts, attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and transporting chemical weapons. A Chicago human rights lawyer took his case and detailed all of Habib's allegations of torture in court documents. After the case garnered national attention through a front page story in The Washington Post, Habib became a liability for the U.S. government. Rather than have his testimony on the torture he suffered in Egypt become a matter of public record, U.S. officials decided to send him back to Sydney in January 2005 - over three years after seizing him in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Habib's case isn't unusual. There's substantial evidence that the United States routinely and knowingly "outsources" the application of torture by transferring terrorism suspects to countries that frequently violate international human rights norms. As details of the extraordinary rendition program have emerged, politicians, journalists, academics, legal experts, and policymakers have raised serious objections to the policy. It has captured the attention of U.S. legislators, and both the House and Senate Committees on Foreign Relations as well as the House Committee on the Judiciary have held hearings to analyze the policy and examine related cases. Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Democratic vice presidential nominee, expressed concern that "rendition, as currently practiced, is undermining our moral credibility and standing abroad and weakening the coalitions with foreign governments that we need to effectively combat international terrorism." As the public continues to learn more about the program, calls to end extraordinary rendition have increased, and the next presidential administration will likely be forced to take a stand one way or another on the issue.

The Origins of Extraordinary Rendition

At the most basic level, the term "rendition" refers to the practice of seizing and transferring a person from one country to another, usually for the purpose of criminal prosecution. Ordinary rendition is common in international relations and involves the surrendering of persons to foreign jurisdictions, in accordance with a treaty or enabling statute, and through a stipulated procedure. "Extraordinary rendition" involves rending persons to non-judicial authorities outside of treaty and legal processes. This is usually accomplished through kidnapping and forced transfer from one country to another. "In many cases of extraordinary rendition, it appears that the seized persons are expressly delivered to foreign jurisdictions to circumvent ... constitutional rights," writes David Weissbrodt and Amy Bergquist. "They are rendered in a manner to specifically deprive them of due process and civil liberties protections." In contrast to extradition, the suspect does not go through the legal system of the country where he is arrested. These persons are sometimes called "ghost detainees" and are outside the protections of domestic or international law in any practical sense.

Extraordinary rendition evolved out of pre-9/11 practices intended to facilitate judicial processes. Only after 9/11 did it become a purposive way to evade U.S. legal prohibitions against torture. In fact, the United States has practiced ordinary rendition since the 1800s, rendering criminal suspects from overseas to be tried in the United States, and these prosecutions were twice endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, in the 1980s, the United States began rendering suspects to other countries as well, in order to expand counterterrorism efforts. In the 1990s, CIA officers reportedly collaborated with Egyptian interrogators to such an extent that U.S. officials would provide their Egyptian counterparts with a list of questions in the morning and would receive answers by evening-illustrating how the United States encouraged and relied on Egyptian interrogation techniques. Former CIA official Michael Scheuer ran rendition operations from 1995 until 1999 and takes credit for creating the extraordinary rendition program in 1995.

The first suspect sent to Egypt was Talaat Fouad Qassem, an Egyptian linked to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In late 1995 he was kidnapped in Croatia, interrogated by U.S. agents on a ship on the Adriatic Sea, and then handed over to Egypt. Human rights experts believe he was tortured, then executed - no record of any trial exists. "When the CIA delivered Talaat Fouad Qassem to the Egyptian authorities, it was certainly aware of how he would be treated," writes Aziz Z. Huq.

In 1998 another suspect, Shawki Salama Attiya, was seized in Albania and flown to Cairo by the CIA in a private jet. Attiya later told The New Yorker 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. According to Daniel Benjamin, former director for counterterrorism policy on the National Security Council during the tenure of former president Bill Clinton, the United States required the receiving country to have some kind of legal process against the suspect, such as an arrest warrant or indictment. Rendition guidelines required that subjects could only be sent to countries that gave assurances that they would not be tortured and whose compliance was monitored by the State Department and the intelligence community. "At a minimum, countries with indisputably lousy human rights records (say, Syria) were off-limits," observes Benjamin. "Now, though, the Bush team seems to have dramatically eroded such safeguards."

According to a former FBI interrogator in Otterman's book, after the 9/11 attacks, rendition "really went out of control." In the aftermath of the attacks the program has accelerated, in part due to expedited procedures approved by President George W. Bush, affording more flexibility to the CIA. On September 17, 2001, America's rendition policy changed in scale and purpose when Bush signed a secret presidential finding that authorized the CIA to capture, kill, or detain members of al-Qaeda anywhere in the world. "The administration's avowed aim was to allow the transfer of suspects to jurisdictions with laxer constraints on coercive interrogation," writes Huq. "Torture thus became a primary goal, not merely a collateral consequence, of rendition to third countries. In this respect, the post-9/11 extraordinary rendition system is qualitatively different from the rendition programs that preceded it."

By late 2001, the CIA was inundated with prisoners captured in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. The U.S.-led campaign had netted thousands of detainees. According to several reports, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have up to 100 high-value detainees in custody held "off the books" in unknown locations. Of the approximately 100 detainees believed to have been "rendered" in the last six years, 39 remain unaccounted for. According to former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, "We do not transport anyone to a country if we believe it more likely than not that the individual will be tortured." However, as Otterman notes, an official quoted in The Washington Post explained it differently: "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them." Scheuer, father of the extraordinary rendition program, concedes that "the bar was lowered after 9/11."

Extraordinary Rendition in Practice

The opaque and confidential nature of the CIA's covert program of extraordinary renditions is perhaps best illustrated by the case involving Iraqi national Hiwa Abdul Rahman Rashul. In summer 2003, Kurdish soldiers captured Rashul in Iraq and handed him over to CIA agents, who flew him to Afghanistan for interrogation. Rashul was flown back to Iraq after a legal advisor for the U.S. administration balked at the transfer. At this point then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at the behest of then-CIA director George Tenet, ordered that Rashul be hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross and not be given a prisoner number. His status remains unknown.

Suspects sent abroad for interrogation have returned with horrific tales of abuse. One example is Canadian software engineer Maher Arar, who was held in Syria for almost a year in a basement cell less than one meter wide by two meters deep. Arar notes in Otterman's book he was regularly beaten by Syrian interrogators: "The cable [was] a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body. They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists; they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips and lower back ... I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming." After Arar's release in October 2003, the Syrian ambassador to the United States conceded that Syria had found no evidence of Arar's complicity in terrorism. Top-level officials have admitted that the program is attractive for dealing with terrorists. Tenet testified before Congress, "It might be better sometimes for ... suspects to remain in the hands of foreign authorities, who might be able to use more aggressive interrogation techniques" and Vice President Dick Cheney has said that when dealing with terrorism, "We're operating through sort of, you know, a dark side." 

The extraordinary rendition program sends suspects to countries with atrocious human rights records, such as Egypt and Syria, both of which have been consistently cited in U.S. State Department reports for using torture. As early as 1994, the State Department concluded that in Egypt, "torture is used to extract information ... Detainees are frequently stripped to their underwear; hung by their wrists with their feet touching the floor or forced to stand for prolonged periods; doused with hot and cold water; beaten; forced to stand outdoors in cold weather, and subjected to electric shocks."

These findings have been verified each year in the State Department's annual reports. Principal methods of torture and abuse included stripping and blindfolding victims; beating victims with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; using electric shocks; and sexual abuse, including sodomy. Some victims, including women and children, reported sexual assaults or threats of rape against themselves or family members. Human rights groups and the media have documented numerous cases of torture: The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights stated that between 1993 and July 2007 it documented more than 567 cases of torture inside police stations, including 167 deaths that the organization concluded were caused by torture and mistreatment.

The same holds true for Syria, which the State Department annually cites for systematic use of torture. The 2007 U.S. State Department Country Report on Syria concludes: "Local human rights organizations have cited numerous cases of security forces allegedly abusing and torturing prisoners. Torture and abuse of detainees was also reportedly common. Many instances of abuse went unreported."  Former prisoners, detainees, and reputable local human rights groups have reported that methods of torture and abuse in Syria include bending the detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts, and using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine.

However, not all suspects are rendered to foreign security forces. Some are sent to "black sites," secret prisons run by the CIA in various nations. As the number of detainees increased after 2001, renditions could not keep up. The CIA requested and received hundreds of millions of dollars to start construction of a private CIA prison network. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 legalized the interrogation techniques employed by CIA agents at these black sites, which include hypothermia, forced standing, sleep deprivation, and simulated drowning, according to Otterman. At a black site in Afghanistan known as the "Salt Pit," an Afghan detainee was stripped naked, chained to a concrete floor outside his cell, and left there overnight. He died of hypothermia and was buried in an unmarked grave near the prison. Otterman notes that no one has been charged with his death, and the agent directing the interrogation has since been promoted.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Increasing criticism of extraordinary rendition has caused governmental officials to go on the defensive, assuring the public that the program does not aim to transfer suspects to have them tortured. In March 2005, Bush stated that the goal of extraordinary rendition was "to arrest people and send them back to their country of origin with the promise that they won't be tortured. That's the promise we receive." He also stated that the United States was leading the fight against torture by example, and that "torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture." Gonzales echoed these sentiments when he said the United States does not send suspects "to countries where we believe or we know they're going to be tortured." Furthermore, in late 2005 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated, "The United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances...the United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture...the United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured."

However, the contrast between the official rhetoric and the reality of the extraordinary rendition program is glaring. In practice, argues Daniel Byman of Georgetown University, "U.S. officials may seek to transfer suspects from a Western ally to the Middle East because the Western ally's laws or inclinations prevent the close monitoring or aggressive interrogation of a terrorism suspect - in contrast to many Middle Eastern countries with poor human rights records...Many U.S. allies in the Middle East have a far lower standard of evidence and are willing to bend what rules they have in response to a U.S. request...Some Middle Eastern countries can also persuade or coerce a suspect's relatives." Despite the governmental rhetoric on the issue, documented cases of extraordinary rendition present a much darker picture of the practice.

Government officials speak of written "diplomatic assurances" that suspects will not be tortured. However, Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's counterterrorism unit that established the extraordinary rendition program, has said that he was "not sure" whether any such assurances were signed before suspects were transferred. Scheuer also stated that he regularly told senior lawyers and policymakers that "Egypt was Egypt" and that in response they inserted a "legal nicety" into the extraordinary rendition procedures. Another CIA agent called these promises a "farce," and an unnamed official told The Washington Post, "They say they are not abusing them, and that satisfies the legal requirement, but we all know they do."

It is unclear what form diplomatic assurances take, or which governmental agency is responsible for obtaining them. Maher Arar's case illustrates that even when such assurances are obtained torture can still occur, in that the State Department apparently sought and received "appropriate assurances from Syrian officials" prior to his transfer. At a June 2008 hearing, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight Bill Delahunt  (D-MA) stated, "Under the Convention against Torture and FARRA [1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act], we are obligated not to send someone to a country where they will be tortured...so we use these ‘diplomatic assurances' to hopefully constrain the actions of the country to which the individual is sent ... the Arar case demonstrates the dangerous practice of relying on these diplomatic assurances." There is also no evidence to suggest that the United States has ever protested to Syria, Egypt, or any other of its extraordinary rendition partners about torture after transfer.

Erroneous Rendition

Under torture in Syria, Arar falsely admitted to training in Afghanistan, but Syrian officials later admitted that they were unable to unearth any ties to terrorism. CIA officials have dubbed cases like his examples of "erroneous rendition." Because the receiving countries generally have far lower standards of evidence, mistakes are more likely.

In December 2003, a German national named Khaled el Masri boarded a bus to travel from Germany to Macedonia. Macedonian police detained him on arrival for three weeks, after which he was handed over to CIA officials. Men wearing black masks and gloves beat him, cut off his clothes, and injected him with drugs. He was then flown to Baghdad and then to Kabul, where he was interrogated by U.S. officials and held in solitary confinement for nearly five months. In May 2004, he was flown back to Europe and released near the Albanian border, on Rice's orders - his detention was apparently a case of mistaken identity. "Such stories hurt America's standing in the eyes of its allies and erode support for U.S. counterterrorism efforts," argues Byman. "Weakened ties to friendly governments are felt later when they refuse to send troops to Iraq, resist trade overtures, or otherwise demonstrate their displeasure." Additionally, the secretive nature of the practice makes it difficult to assess the number of erroneous renditions that may occur.

Legal Violation

Extraordinary rendition violates both international and U.S. domestic law. In terms of international law, a 2006 study analyzing extraordinary rendition from a human rights perspective concluded that the practice "violates numerous international human rights standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention against Torture, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and the Geneva Conventions."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the "right to life, liberty, and security of the person," and some argue that extraordinary rendition violates the treaty because the abduction itself involves a deprivation of liberty and security. Furthermore, the Declaration guarantees that "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law," but extraordinary rendition denies individuals access to judicial procedures and legal recognition. Extraordinary rendition also violates the Geneva Conventions of 1949 in that Article 49 prohibits forcible transportations and deportations "regardless of their motive."

Additionally, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) prohibits sending an individual to a state where there are substantial grounds to believe that the person would be in danger of being tortured. The United States has both signed and ratified the treaty, which directs signatories to "take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant, or mass violations of human rights." The United Nations Committee against Torture was created to monitor implementation of the CAT, and has made two significant findings related to extraordinary rendition. In Khan v. Canada, the committee found that Canada violated Article 3 of the CAT by transferring a person to a country that was not a party to the Convention, because the person would be subjected to a danger of torture. In Agiza v. Sweden, the committee found that Sweden also violated Article 3 when it seized an Egyptian asylee with U.S. assistance and transferred him back to Egypt. The Committee determined that Sweden knew or should have known that Egypt resorted to consistent and widespread use of torture against detainees.

Although much of the current discourse surrounding extraordinary rendition concerns international law, the practice violates U.S. law as well. The 1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act (FARRA) states: "It shall be the policy of the United States not to expel, extradite, or otherwise affect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

A report by the New York University Law School and the New York City Bar Association concluded that the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act, as well as the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Immigration Act all prohibit "the practice of transferring an individual...to a foreign state in circumstances that make it more likely than not that the individual will be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." John B. Bellinger, Legal Advisor to the Secretary of State, testified before Congress that "U.S. commitments under Article 3 [of the Convention Against Torture] and our related policy are absolute. There are no exceptions based on national security or the criminality of an individual."

Undermining the National Interest

Disputes over extraordinary rendition have resulted in tangible setbacks for the United States in terms of weakening relationships with allies, undermining the growth of democracy in the Middle East, undercutting counterterrorism efforts, and giving al-Qaeda a powerful recruiting tool.

Among U.S. allies, as information on the extraordinary rendition program came to light, politicians and journalists roundly condemned the practice. Rice's visit to Europe in 2005 and defense of extraordinary rendition only served to widen the trans-Atlantic divide on the issue. So far, Germany has issued arrest warrants for 13 U.S. intelligence officers. Italy has indicted 26 Americans for their alleged role in the 2003 extradition of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.

Nasr was abducted from Milan and then transferred to Egypt where he asserts he was badly tortured. According to Human Rights Watch, the prosecution represents the first ever legal challenge to the extraordinary rendition program, and the American defendants will be tried in absentia. Additionally, a Canadian government commission has censured the United States for Maher Arar's rendition, and the Council of Europe and the European Union have each issued reports critical of the U.S. rendition program. In July 2007, the United Kingdom issued a report concluding that the practice would have "serious implications" for future intelligence relations between the United States and United Kingdom.

In early 2008 controversy broke out in Great Britain when it was discovered that two CIA planes on extraordinary rendition flights landed and refueled at a U.S. base on the British territory of Diego Garcia. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the matter extremely dangerous and according to Otterman Barry Marston, spokesman for the British Foreign Office, stated, "we reject extraordinary rendition for torture-related purposes, we reject secret detention centres, we categorically reject torture, and we refuse to overlook the occurrence of such activities on British territory anywhere. Britain is committed to investigating the circumstances surrounding these two incidents, and to following up on any leads or suspicions related to other similar incidents." As criticism of extraordinary rendition continues to mount some important American allies, such as Great Britain, Canada, and Germany, seized the opportunity to denounce the practice and have ordered investigations into allegations of previous complicity in the program. However, some Eastern European nations, such as Poland and Romania, are suspected of continued collaboration with CIA agents involved in extraordinary rendition despite the growing international opposition to the practice.

As important the impact of extraordinary rendition is on our European allies, it is perhaps more influential on our undemocratic partners in the Middle East. Circumventing legal channels weakens international judicial and prosecutorial cooperation, which makes the rule of law in countries such as Egypt and Syria even more vulnerable. For example, since 1952 Egypt has suffered under total executive domination, wherein dissension is subdued by extralegal methods and sometimes through violent repression by security forces. "Egyptian-American cooperation in extraordinary rendition strengthens the least law-abiding elements of the Egyptian state, its internal security forces, and thus corrodes the prospects for full Egyptian democracy," writes Huq.

Additionally, the United States encourages human rights violators to continue to torture though the extraordinary rendition program. This has proved true in Sudan and Zimbabwe, which have justified "disappearances" of foes to the ruling regimes on the grounds that the U.S. also "disappears" people. Zimbabwe's representative to the U.N. Human Rights Commission brushed off American criticism of abuses by his government, saying, "Those who live in a glass house should not throw stones ... [America has] a lot of dirt on its hands."  Additionally, in a meeting with representatives from Human Rights Watch, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif responded to allegation of torture on the part of his security forces by stating, "We're just doing what the United States does."

Not only does extraordinary rendition empower local factions who are opposed to the development of democracy, it is also a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. In a hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Chairman Joseph Biden asserted, "In our long-term effort to stem the tide of international terrorism, our commitments to the rule of law and to individual rights and civil liberties are among our most formidable weapons...the controversial aspects of the United States government's use of rendition have been used by propagandists and recruiters to fuel and sustain international terrorist organizations with a constant stream of new recruits."

Extraordinary rendition has also made cooperation between U.S. and European police and intelligence agencies more difficult. Faced with public pressure over reports that European intelligence services were collaborating with U.S. agents in extraordinary renditions, European police and judiciaries have limited the scope of counterterrorism cooperation. Extraordinary rendition also undermines the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which emphasized the need for the United States to "offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors."

Furthermore, experts have lamented that intelligence gathered as a result of interrogations involving torture is not always accurate because it is obtained under extreme duress. Scheuer says he has always distrusted intelligence resulting from the practice because the admissions it produced were usually "very tainted...You could bet on the testimony given to you, it was altered in a way that would serve the interests of the country that was giving it ... it would be far from coupled with what was actually being said."

For example, a suspected al-Qaeda member named Ibn al Sheikh al Libi was captured shortly after 9/11. The FBI, which uses traditional psychological interrogation methods, initially questioned him. However, the Bush administration lost patience with the FBI's methodology and turned him over to the CIA, which eventually sent him to Egypt for interrogation. Reportedly, Al Libi's family was threatened, he was waterboarded, and forced to remain standing overnight in a cold cell while being repeatedly doused with cold water. Under these conditions, Al Libi told his interrogators that Saddam Hussein was helping al-Qaeda obtain chemical weapons. The Bush administration officials and others used this false information repeatedly to justify the invasion of Iraq, and was the closing argument in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN in 2003.

Beyond Rendition

As details of the extraordinary rendition program have come to the fore, academics, policy experts, and politicians have weighed in on the debate, including both presidential candidates. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has said, "To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of law."  Republican presidential nominee John McCain has said that he wants to close Guantánamo Bay, but would not restrict CIA interrogation methods to those in the U.S. Army Field Manual. Although he supported the Military Commissions Act, calling it a ban on torture, critics of the Act say that it allows the president to secretly decide what kinds of treatment he will permit at CIA prisons and absolves American intelligence agents of any acts of torture or abuse they have already committed. In fact, when the act passed in 2006, Bush announced that he now had the power to keep secret CIA prisons open.

In October 2007, the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees held an emotional joint hearing on the Maher Arar case. Arar attended via videoconference from Canada after the Bush administration denied the congressional request to allow him into the country to attend the hearing. Republican and Democratic members of a U.S. congressional panel issued personal apologies to Arar and denounced the Bush administration for refusing to admit its mistake in sending him to Syria. Representative Delahunt said to Arar, "Let me personally give you what our government has not - an apology" and Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said, "We should be ashamed." Rohrabacher also denounced the Bush administration for denying Arar entry to the United States, saying, "Not letting you come here adds insult to injury."  

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on extraordinary rendition's impact on transatlantic relations in April 2007. Delahunt, chairman of the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight and an outspoken critic of extraordinary rendition, stated, "Congress has a role here in ensuring that our laws - our values - are respected by any Administration. This Congress unfortunately has abdicated its oversight responsibility - a failure which these hearings will begin to correct. But while Congress took no action, others stepped up to the plate. Much of what we know about the renditions program is known because of the important work of news agencies and nongovernmental organizations. In January, the European Parliament made an important contribution to the debate by issuing a report on what the CIA was doing in Europe, and on their own governments' apparent complicity in its operations." 

The extraordinary rendition program has garnered negative attention from all types of media, and even historically conservative publications such as The Washington Times have run opinion editorials critical of the policy. Weekly columnist Nat Hentoff detailed the rendition of German citizen Khaled el Masri, arguing, "These kidnappings and subsequent tortures have done much to discredit the United States in countries from which the suspects were taken - and they have interfered with our intelligence gathering from officials there who are now accused of complicity with American disregard of the laws of those sovereign nations."

One result of the current firestorm of criticism of the program is the National Security with Justice Act of 2007 (S.1876), introduced by Biden and cosponsored by Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). The bill would protect legitimate intelligence activities while limiting rendition to cases where prisoners are sent to face justice with due process, and requires an independent court review of transfers to ensure that no one is sent to face torture or detention without charge. When introducing the bill, Biden acknowledged the effect the program has had on our allies. A related bill, the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act (H.R.1352) was introduced by Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) in March 2007 and would require the State Department to provide annual reports to appropriate congressional committees regarding countries where there are substantial grounds for believing that torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is commonly used in the detention or interrogation of individuals and would prohibit rendition to such countries. The bill enjoys the support of 60 cosponsors and is currently pending before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Ultimately, the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition relies on disingenuous diplomatic assurances and can result in the torture and prolonged detention of innocent individuals. It also tarnishes our reputation in the international community and undermines American national interests by alienating our allies and weakening counterterrorism efforts. Accordingly, the next administration needs to definitively and publicly end the extraordinary rendition program. In addition, there needs to be some level of accountability in terms of recognizing how and where erroneous renditions have occurred and providing appropriate compensation. One place to start would be with Maher Arar, who should immediately be removed from the U.S. terrorist watch-lists and appropriately compensated for his suffering.

Furthermore, the new administration and Congress should support the National Security with Justice Act, currently pending before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, as well as the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act, pending before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The prospect of a new administration presents a unique opportunity to repair the U.S. reputation in the international community. However, we will never regain our moral authority until we can speak with absolute moral clarity on the issue of torture.

Sangitha McKenzie Millar, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, is a Research Associate at Citizens for Global Solutions.

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