While the nation focused on Richard Clarke’s allegations last week, CIA director George Tenet let slip other revelations in his testimony to the 9-11 Commission, admissions that sharpen the contours of the shadowy intelligence practice called “extraordinary rendition.”
The policy, codified in the late 1980s to allow U.S. law enforcement to apprehend wanted men in lawless states like Lebanon during its civil war, has emerged in recent years as one of America’s key counterterrorism tools, and has now expanded in scope to include the transfer of terrorism suspects by U.S. intelligence agents to foreign countries for interrogation—and, say some insiders, torture prohibited inside this nation’s borders.
Tenet testified that in an unspecified period before September 11, the U.S. had undertaken over 70 such renditions, adding that the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA had “racked up many successes, including the rendition of many dozens of terrorists prior to September 11, 2001.” Tenet’s testimony marked a rare occasion when the CIA, which doesn’t comment publicly on the practice, provided any details about rendition.
As the 9-11 Commission continues its focus on why more wasn’t done to prevent the terror attacks, a public inquiry set to begin in the next few weeks in Canada may reveal long-hidden secrets about the abuses of America’s war on terror. Headed by a judge, it will investigate why Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was flying home to Montreal in 2002, was detained by the U.S. authorities at JFK Airport, and then escorted through Jordan to Syria, where he said he was tortured and kept in a grave-like cell for 10 months. Arar was finally cleared by a Syrian court and sent back to Canada, where he hasn’t been charged with any crime.
Arar’s advocates say his case calls into question not only what kind of men the U.S. is apprehending, but where these detainees are being sent, and with what consequences. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Arar in the U.S., filed a lawsuit on his behalf in late January that they have said is the first to challenge the legality of rendition.
“[F]ederal officials removed Mr. Arar to Syria under the Government’s ‘extraordinary renditions’ program precisely because Syria could use methods of interrogation to obtain information from Mr. Arar that would not be legally or morally acceptable in this country or in other democracies,” the group charged.
What once resembled “kidnapping” re-entered the public lexicon in 1989 as “rendition.” Then CIA director William H. Webster told The Washington Post the new law would allow the agency to arrest suspects in the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. As Webster explained it, “You have a different set of circumstances in a country like Lebanon which has no capacity to provide law enforcement or assistance.” In subsequent years, high-profile suspects “rendered” to the U.S. have included Manuel Noriega, hijacker Fawaz Yunis, and Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican doctor accused of helping torture and murder a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. Alvarez-Machain was later acquitted.
Later it emerged that there had been other secretive operations, with less transparent conclusions.
“Plenty of renditions were not to the U.S. We just facilitated the renditions,” said one former CIA official about terrorism suspects captured by the agency in the 1990s. “We’d arrest them and send them to Jordan or Egypt, and they’d disappear.” The men were not brought to the U.S., said the former official, “because the evidence against them would never hold up in court.”
Egyptian and U.S. intelligence officials cooperated throughout the 1990s to seize suspected terrorists, according to an article published soon after 9-11 in The Boston Globe. Reporter Anthony Shadid described one such operation in 1995, when U.S. agents seized a wanted Egyptian from Croatia, interrogated him on a ship in the Adriatic, then sent him off to Egypt, where his wife believes he was executed. As one official told Shadid, “These are not nice people. We’re pretty much sure what they’ve done. Nobody’s picking Joe Blow off the street here.”
George Tenet repeated the conclusion to the 9-11 Commission. “We were taking terrorists off the street,” he said, “but the threat level persisted.”
The practice of rendition is thought to have increased dramatically since 9-11, and in addition to suspects being handed over to foreign countries, detainees have also been sent to U.S. bases overseas, like Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Tenet said rendition remains one of the principal strategies employed against the threat of international terrorism.
And he added that so-called “liaison partners”—foreign intelligence services—were essential to the CIA’s effectiveness.
“Although liaison services are an essential part of an aggressive posture against terrorism,” Tenet said, “their ability to share is sometimes hindered by their countries’ own legal protections and open societies. These limitations include restrictions on rendering terrorists to countries that permit capital punishment.”
The case of Maher Arar suggests no such restrictions encumber U.S. efforts. In September 2002, Arar was returning to Canada from Tunisia when he was detained by U.S. immigration authorities while in transit at JFK. He was held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for 12 days and interrogated, he said, by FBI and immigration officials. Then he was put on a small plane, and after a stopover in Washington, flown to Amman, Jordan, where Arar was handed over to Jordanian authorities. He said the Jordanians beat him for hours, and then took him to Syria. His Syrian captors tortured him, beating him on the palms, hips, and lower back with electric cables.
After Arar’s release, which caused a storm in Canada but barely raised a whisper in the U.S., Syrian authorities said they had no interest in him, and had interrogated him in a show of goodwill towards the U.S. Arar believed his interrogation was largely related to a casual acquaintance, a terrorism suspect who has also been released from jail in Syria.
In November, almost two months after Arar returned to Canada, U.S. officials claimed they had sent him to Syria after receiving assurances he wouldn’t be tortured. Syria maintained that it hadn’t tortured him.
“Obviously, it would be superb if the inquiry shed some light on U.S. practices,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International in Canada, which has been deeply involved in Arar’s case. U.S. officials have said they acted on information supplied by Canadian authorities, but didn’t cooperate with them during the operation. “We’re interested to know what role, if any, Canadian input may have played in him being detained in the first place,” Neve said.
Friends of Arar have said if not for the efforts and charisma of his wife, Monia Mazigh, who is now running for parliament in Canada, he might still be in jail, or worse.
“It shouldn’t matter whether a person is guilty or not,” Arar told the Voice. “A human being should be respected. They should not be sent for torture. The principle behind any free society is due process.
“What is really at stake,” he continued, “is the message the U.S. government, which talks about democracy, is sending to third-world countries.”
And American observers have an interest in what kind of intelligence causes authorities here to send suspects off to prisons in countries that permit the use of torture. “Who knows whether some of these people [we detained] were dissidents?” said the former CIA official. “Intelligence is imprecise. You can’t go on a hunch and torture someone.”