The White House briefing room is the corner office in the inner sanctum of the establishment press, and the reporters who fill the chairs there are often—and often rightly—pilloried as mere cogs in the Bush information machine. So when a White House reporter does his or her job of holding the administration’s feet to the fire, they deserve a gold star. Today’s shiny sticker goes to the person known in the transcript of Monday’s briefing as “Terry” (we can assume that’s ABC News correspondent Terry Moran).
Sunday’s New York Times featured a front-page piece by Douglas Jehl and David Johnston about the CIA’s policy of sending terrorist suspects to foreign countries for interrogations, called “rendition.” While renditions pre-date 9-11, the CIA can now send people abroad without case-by-case approval from the White House or Justice Department, Jehl and Johnston report. The policy has never been officially acknowledged, and has come under criticism from human rights advocates for sending suspects to countries where they stand a good chance of being tortured. According to the Times, U.S. officials claim that they do not transfer a prisoner to a country unless the CIA gets assurances that the person will not be tortured. However, several detainees—some of them who were never charged with a crime and have been released—have claimed they were tortured when shipped to foreign jailers.
The big question is: Why send prisoners in our custody to another country if NOT because foreign interrogators have more leeway?
And that’s the question that Terry asks White House spokesman Scott McClellan in this exchange:
Q Why has the President approved of and expanded the practice of rendition, of the transfer of individuals from CIA custody to third countries for the purposes of interrogation?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Terry, we’re talking about the war on terrorism. And this is a different kind of war. What took place on September 11th changed the world that we live in; it changed the equation, when it came to addressing the threats of the 21st century that we face. We have an obligation to the American people to gather intelligence that will help prevent attacks from happening in the first place. There are people that want to do harm to America.
We’re talking about enemy combatants who are terrorists that have been involved in plotting and planning to attack the American people. And if they have information that can help us prevent attacks from happening in the first place, we have an obligation to learn more about what they know. That will help us prevent attacks from happening in the first place.
But the President has made it very clear that when it comes to the question of torture, that we do not torture, we do not condone torture, he would never authorize the use of torture. We have laws and treaty obligations that we abide by and adhere to. This is — the United States is a nation of laws. We also have an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they would be tortured.
And so Judge Gonzales, during his testimony, provided information, talking about how we get assurances from countries to make sure that they abide by our values when it comes to the question of torture. But this is a different kind of war, and it requires us to gather intelligence in order to protect the American people.
Q Well, one of the countries that receives a lot of these individuals is Uzbekistan. What is it that the Uzbekis can do in interrogations that the United States of America can’t do?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, if you’re asking me to talk about specific intelligence matters, you know that I’m not going to do that. But —
MR. McCLELLAN: Our understanding —
Q — what is it that this country, the most advanced in national security matters of any country in the world, cannot accomplish in interrogations —
Q — that the nation of Uzbekistan can?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you’re asking me to get into specific matters, and I’m not going to do that —
Q Generally, in general —
MR. McCLELLAN: — because of the classified nature of our intelligence. But it is important that we gather intelligence to protect the American people. We are working closely in partnership with many countries to win the war on terrorism and to prevent attacks from happening in the first place. The President will talk about some of those efforts that are being undertaken by countries around the world to win the war on terrorism tomorrow. And he looks forward to doing that.
But in terms of the whole question of renditions, I think our views are very clear in terms of —
Q But I’m wondering about the rationale for rendition. Why does the President approve of it? Why has he expanded it? And what is it that countries like Uzbekistan, in general, offer the U.S.?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, in terms of the whole issue of renditions, that’s relating to classified intelligence matters, which I’m not going to —
Q You can’t even tell me in general why this practice occurs?
MR. McCLELLAN: Which I’m not going to get into. No, I just told you in general that we have an obligation to the American people to gather intelligence that will help prevent attacks from happening in the first place. The war on terrorism is a different kind of war. And we have sworn enemies of the United States who continue to seek to do us harm. And we are talking about enemy combatants, known terrorists, who have been involved in plotting and planning to attack the American people in the past, and who might have information that can help us prevent attacks from happening in the future.
Now, as we go about gathering intelligence, we have values and laws that we believe are important, that we believe need to be adhered to. And that is our commitment. The President has made it very clear to our government that we must abide by our laws and treaty obligations. And he’s made it very clear that we do not torture.
Curiously, McClellan did not cite the lone and pretty lame rationale cited in the Sunday Times piece. “The transfers were portrayed,” Jehl and Johnston wrote, “as an alternative to what American officials have said is the costly, manpower-intensive process of housing them in the United States or in American-run facilities in other countries.” [Yet another victory for globalization: Now we’re outsourcing intelligence work. Are CIA agents and military intelligence officers going to take this lying down? Unionize!]
The renditions policy is separate from the secret prisons the CIA apparently runs overseas; the known facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Cuba; the enemy combatants held in U.S. military jails; and the detention of Muslims in the wake of 9-11.
While media coverage has alerted Americans to what happened at Abu Ghraib, and legal wrangling has kept Guantanamo Bay and enemy combatants in the press, relatively little attention has been given to the Muslims who were rounded up after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
For people in the NYC area wishing to learn more and willing to take the 7 train, the always excellent Queens Museum of Art (home of the Panorama of New York City, perhaps the greatest monument to the majesty of this city) is hosting a multimedia exhibit called “Disappeared in America” that chronicles the plight of some of our former neighbors. The exhibit runs through June 5.