With hearings in Congress, legal cases bouncing up to the Supreme Court and complaints from Canada and our European allies, the issue of rendition is everywhere. There’s even a new, eponymously titled movie in a theater near you, starring Reese Witherspoon as a bereft wife whose innocent husband gets kidnapped and Meryl Streep as the frosty CIA chief who ordered the snatch. Like most covert actions and much of the war on al-Qaeda, the practice is shrouded in mystery — and, increasingly, the suspicion that it’s synonymous with torture and lawlessness.
In fact, the term “rendition” in the counterterrorism context means nothing more than moving someone from one country to another, outside the formal process of extradition. For the CIA, rendition has become a key tool for getting terrorists from places where they’re causing trouble to places where they can’t. The problem is where these people are taken and what happens to them when they get there. As a former director for counterterrorism policy on the National Security Council staff, I’ve been involved with the issue of rendition for nearly a decade — and some of these myths need to be cleared up.
1. Rendition is something the Bush administration cooked up.
Nope. George W. Bush was still struggling to coax oil out of the ground when the United States “rendered to justice” its first suspect from abroad. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan authorized an operation that lured Lebanese hijacker Fawaz Younis to a boat off the coast of Cyprus, where FBI agents arrested him. Younis had participated in the 1985 hijacking of a Jordanian plane and was implicated in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, which left a U.S. Navy diver dead. President George H.W. Bush approved the kidnapping in 1990 of Mexican physician, Humberto Alvarez Machain, who was believed to be involved in the torture and killing of a Drug Enforcement Administration official. Nothing says that renditions can only involve only suspected terrorists; the Israel’s abduction of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 could be called a rendition, though the term was not yet in use.
Beginning in 1995, President Bill Clinton’s administration turned up the speed with a full-fledged program to use rendition to disrupt terrorism plotting abroad. According to former director of central intelligence George J. Tenet, about 70 renditions were carried out before Sept. 11, 2001, most of them during the Clinton years.
2. People who are “rendered” inevitably end up in a foreign slammer — or worse.
Actually, that’s not a foregone conclusion. Alvarez was brought to the United States. So was Mir Aimal Kansi, who killed two CIA employees in their cars outside the agency’s Langley headquarters in 1993, and Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Both were apprehended in Pakistan, whose leaders decided that the nation would rather not have those two — folk heroes to some — sitting in jail, awaiting extradition. Pakistan’s leaders feared that cooperating with the United States would be dangerously unpopular, so they wanted the suspects out of the country quickly. For many pro-U.S. Muslim leaders, that concern has only deepened as anti-Americanism has soared.
By my count, most renditions since 1995 have involved moving individuals from one foreign country to another — not grabbing someone in Washington and carting them off to North Africa, as happens to Witherspoon’s onscreen husband. Such operations typically occur in secret because, again, Muslim leaders (especially in the Arab world) want to shield their cooperation with Washington from their anti-American publics. The CIA has acted as a go-between, arranging the transfers and providing transportation. Usually those being rendered are not brought to the United States because, while the U.S. government may have an abundance of intelligence showing their malfeasance, it doesn’t have enough courtroom evidence. There’s a big difference between the two.
One other safeguard: During the Clinton years, the United States required the country that received a rendered person to have some kind of legal process against the suspect — an arrest warrant or indictment, for example. It’s not clear whether that is still the case. Perhaps Michael Mukasey, President Bush’s attorney general nominee, can check.
3. Step one of a rendition involves kidnapping the suspect.
The individual may feel as though he’s being kidnapped, but that’s not usually what’s going on. Most of the time, the person is detained by the authorities of the country he is in. They will then hand him off to the CIA, who will fly him to his destination.
In rare cases when the country of residence is a hostile one, an “extraordinary rendition” can be carried out: a covert effort to abduct the suspect and spirit him out of the country. The CIA put considerable time into efforts to capture Osama bin Laden this way from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Had it worked, it would have been an extraordinary rendition — and Americans would have cheered.
4. Rendition is just a euphemism for outsourcing torture.
Well, not historically. The guidelines for Clinton-era renditions required that subjects could be sent only to countries where they were not likely to be tortured — countries that gave assurances to that effect and whose compliance was monitored by the State Department and the intelligence community. It’s impossible to be certain that those standards were upheld every time, but serious efforts were made to see that they were. At a minimum, countries with indisputably lousy human rights records (say, Syria) were off-limits. Another key difference: Renditions before Bush were carried out to disrupt terrorist activity, not to gather intelligence or interrogate individuals.
Now, though, the Bush team seems to have dramatically eroded such safeguards. The administration has apparently sent someone to Syria, and Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, was evidently boosted in Macedonia and interrogated in Afghanistan in a manner that sure sounds like torture. In light of this and other revelations, the criticism that the administration has “defined down” torture looks pretty persuasive. It’s probably a good bet that Congress or the next administration will reform the program, or abolish it outright.
5. Pretty much anyone — including U.S. citizens and green card holders — can be rendered these days.
Not so, although the movie “Rendition” — in which Witherspoon’s Egyptian-born husband gets the black-hood treatment and is yanked from a U.S. airport and taken to a North African chamber of horrors — is bound to spread this myth. A “U.S. person” (citizen or legal resident) have constitutional protections against being removed from the country through rendition, and there have been no incidents to suggest the contrary. In fairness, though, the ghastly case of Maher Arar — a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who convincingly says he was detained at New York’s JFK Airport, handed off to Syria and tortured — is way too close for comfort.