Renditions and torture - Stratfor
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Renditions: Public Discourse, Covert Practice
By Fred Burton
The Spanish government announced on television earlier this week that it is investigating claims that CIA aircraft secretly made stopovers on the island of Majorca several times during 2004 while transferring terrorism suspects to various countries. The discussion is the latest in a growing series of reports -- which have increased in tempo in recent weeks -- focusing on aspects of the United States' controversial "rendition" program, in which terrorist suspects are forcibly extracted from foreign countries and transported elsewhere for questioning and/or imprisonment.
Whether the Spanish government knew, or pretended not to know, or simply was never told, about any CIA stopovers in Majorca is subject to debate, as are the Spanish interior minister's televised statements that the activities, if confirmed, would harm political ties between Madrid and Washington. That may or may not be the case: Western governments, frequently close allies of the United States, have professed outrage over covert intelligence operations before, even when no actual rage existed, as a means of creating plausible deniability in the eyes of the public. Diplomatic notes and public barbs might be exchanged, but frequently, that is simply part of the covert intelligence game.
What is, perhaps, most interesting about the outcry in Spain is that it is adding to the volume of public discussions, criticism and warnings about the U.S. government's program -- and that volume itself, when it comes to covert operation tactics, is noteworthy.
Renditions have been more or less publicly discussed for some time, as the U.S. intelligence community seeks long-term strategies to replace the patchwork options strung together for dealing with terrorist suspects following the Sept. 11 attacks. But the issue has become much more prominent in the media during the past few months -- sparked, in part, by actions in Italy, where in June arrest warrants were issued for the first time against U.S. citizens who were linked to a rendition (in that case, an extraction out of Milan that occurred in 2003). The greater degree of public scrutiny also stems, in part, from more general interest in the interrogation methods used against terrorism suspects (following the Abu Ghraib prison scandal) and in the public manifestations of turmoil at the CIA, where family feuds have spilled out into the open since Director Porter Goss took office. Indeed, a great many of the most prominent news articles circulating about renditions draw on interviews with both veteran and current intelligence officials who are openly critical of the program as it is conducted today.
Concerns about the program are widely known: Terrorist suspects are snatched, transported to countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Uzbekistan and other, lesser-known locales for questioning and then held in secret prisons, frequently without any form of legal due process. Interrogations often are conducted by foreign intelligence services -- some of which allegedly use torture methods -- and suspects' statements are shared with U.S. counterterrorism agencies. Obviously, this sets up a host of legal, moral, political and practical issues for all involved. Moreover, it could be argued that the more controversial aspects of renditions contribute to the ideological challenges that lie at the heart of the U.S. war against militant Islamism. (By way of example, Ayman al-Zawahiri was once brutally tortured by Egyptian security services as a political prisoner. It is not the sort of memory that softens over time.)
It is important not to confuse the issue of renditions -- the actual extraction of a suspect from a foreign country -- with torture, though they frequently are fused together in public discussions. The practices are not synonymous with each other, and in many situations, simple sleep deprivation may be all that is needed to get a suspect to open up to interrogators. However, some have argued that it is the specter of torture -- in countries where human rights are not necessarily a feature of daily life -- that helps to make the rendition program effective. In essence, the argument goes, a hardened al Qaeda operative would scoff at interrogators if he was rendered to a peaceful, law-abiding place like Switzerland; whereas being taken to a place where he might literally be boiled alive could make him talkative.
From a tactical perspective, however, this does not help intelligence operations: Questions about the usefulness and reliability of statements extracted from "rendered" suspects throw a spanner into the entire intelligence system. Sifting actionable intelligence from the heaps of rumors, allegations and false leads is difficult enough as it is -- and it is a crucial aspect of intelligence work and national security.
Discomfort about renditions has grown in the years since Sept. 11, as the practice has become more common. There are some signs that the vetting process for renditions has become lax or sloppy, with a much higher number of terrorism suspects -- whose connections to al Qaeda may indeed be questionable -- being brought in for interrogations at a limited number of facilities around the world. Because the program is so controversial -- and the issue of such forms of intelligence cooperation with the United States is highly politicized -- the number of sites and foreign partners Washington logistically can count on has dwindled somewhat.
The way the program now is being carried out differs in important regards from the format initially devised following the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. At that time, renditions were to be carried out only in cases where suspects had an outstanding arrest warrant or had been tried in absentia for terrorist crimes. Other criteria included the perception that the suspect posed a direct threat to the United States, and there were significant levels of government oversight by both the United States and the "host" country.
As practiced during the 1990s, renditions were predicated on four primary "legs" that were factored into any decision-making process in Washington: foreign policy considerations, security concerns and threat ramifications, the actionable intelligence to be gleaned from the suspect, and law enforcement and prosecution applications. This structure brought a number of agencies into the decision-making process and provided a system of checks and balances.
For instance, on the foreign policy front, the State Department has a say on the diplomatic ramifications or potential outrage over a snatch on foreign soil. Questions to be answered are whether it is in the national security interests of the United States to take such an aggressive action, whether a friendly "third party" country would accept the suspect, and if so, which one?
From a security standpoint, it has been the job of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) to gauge the threat posture generated by any official U.S. presence inside the country, and to estimate any blowback to the U.S. business community following the extraction. Would the capture of an al Qaeda suspect, for example, lead to the deaths of Americans, or spark demonstrations or mob violence within the host country? The implications of a rendition out of Indonesia, say, would generate different security concerns than one out of Italy, where the host government can adequately protect diplomats and the embassy.
On the intelligence front, it is the job of the CIA to determine how valuable the suspect is and what information could be gleaned from him -- for instance, whether he is involved in plotting attacks -- if he is grabbed. The CIA also decides and negotiates with another foreign intelligence service as to where the debriefing should be conducted. And in terms of law enforcement applications, the FBI and Department of Justice have been charged with determining whether the suspect being targeted for rendition is wanted by the United States, is a material witness to a terrorist attack or is the subject of a sealed federal indictment.
It is in these final two areas that the greatest level of discomfort is now being voiced.
Renditions have always been a tricky business, but conducted with sufficient levels of oversight, they can be a valuable tool in the counterterrorism war. Abdel Basit -- more widely known as Ramzi Yousef -- for example, was pulled out of Pakistan in February 1995 on charges stemming from his role in the first World Trade Center bombing and in connection with the Operation Bojinka plot, and two of his Bojinka accomplices were rendered the month before out of Manila. It is a safe bet that these covert operations spared the lives of many potential victims.
However, much of the criticism now being voiced about renditions centers on the CIA's role in vetting the value of a suspect, and on the lack of due process considerations. The questionable interrogation methods that might be used are not the only thing clouding the quality of the intelligence that is gathered; frequently, the suspect's connections to known terrorist groups or plots is open to debate -- and that can lead to pressures and problems throughout the entire system.
Which brings us back to the growing public scrutiny. Certainly, the treatment of terrorism suspects has become an issue for debate on the Hill, where Sen. John McCain and others are pushing legislation to guard the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. But given the way the CIA works with foreign intelligence agencies, it can easily be argued that "rendered" suspects are not actually in U.S. custody, but in the hands of foreign authorities. And it is niceties such as this that seem to be giving birth to critics of the program, on both sides of the intelligence divide. Meanwhile, White House officials have argued that interrogation methods used by the clandestine services should not be subjected to the same levels of oversight as, for instance, those used by the U.S. military, for national security reasons.
Clearly, there are those within the U.S. intelligence community who see value in the renditions program but want it reined in, returned to its more conservative roots. There are others, of course, who don't seem to be wrestling with any moral concerns about the way the program is conducted. It is not at all clear that moral, ethical or even practical concerns are on the verge of forcing a schism within the counterterrorism community, but the growth of public concerns about such issues could generate uncomfortable political pressures for Washington.
There is a practical conundrum to consider as well: Public knowledge of the rendition program, and even of some of the more controversial aspects, can serve as an effective form of psyops against terrorists. Much like the long arm of the MOSSAD, awareness of the risk and the reach can force suspects to sleep with one eye open, never knowing when they might wake with a bag over their heads as they are whisked into a black van.
On the other hand, wider recognition of the practice amongst the public -- in foreign countries, where anti-American sentiment might run high or spike at times for various reasons, or within the United States -- might not always be in the government's best interest. There is growing opposition within the country to the Bush administration's management of the war against jihadists, as well as heightened receptivity to criticism of the behavior of the military and counterterrorism agencies. This political audience currently is poorly organized and badly led, but with a certain level of media controversy and allegations -- even if inaccurate or unfounded -- tying human rights abuses to renditions, the political ramifications could be substantial, and the future of the renditions program thrown into doubt.
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