By William Fisher
Since long before 9/11, U.S. mainstream media regarded reporting on the practice of ‘extreme rendition’ as a kind of Third Rail of American Journalism. But accounts of widespread prisoner abuse, ghost detainees, testimony from freed prisoners, dissident weblogs, and secret government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, have sounded a noisy wake-up call to the Fourth Estate.
In just the past week alone, the return to the U.S. of a 23-year-old American citizen, Ahmed Abu Ali, from secret detention in Saudi Arabia, has triggered major mainstream media coverage and editorials in the powerful New York Times and Washington Post, and a major article in Newsweek magazine. A week earlier, The New Yorker magazine published a long and detailed article, “Outsourcing Torture” by Jane Mayer, leading with the ‘extreme rendition’ of a Canadian citizen from the U.S. to Syria, where he alleges he was tortured.
Commenting on the Abu Ali case, The Washington Post editorial declared, “The courts need to ensure that no evidence obtained by torture -- with or without the connivance of the U.S. government -- is used to convict people in U.S. courts.” The New York Times editorial said, “In an undisciplined attempt to wring statements out of any conceivable suspect, American officials have worked with countries like Saudi Arabia, a nation whose attitude toward human rights is deplorable, and Syria, which is counted by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism. And now these officials are faced with the problem of what to do with these prisoners, most of whom have proved to be no use to interrogators, but who remain on America's conscience.”
These and a flurry of other news accounts have been generated by prisoner abuses by the U.S. military and its contractors at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in Afghanistan, in suspected secret ‘interrogation centers’ run by the U.S. overseas, and by first-person accounts provided by prisoners freed from or still held in prisons in Egypt, Syria, Guantanamo Bay, and other locations.
President Bush has asserted that “the values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.”
Before 9/11, many mainstream U.S. journalists and editors knew of the ‘extreme rendition’ practice, and reported on testimony on the subject before Congressional committees by the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and other government units. Prior to 9/11, ‘extreme rendition’ was thought to be practiced by the C.I.A. only; post-9/11 cooperation between intelligence and law enforcement has now also implicated the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.).
But, while human rights advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights First, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union, have been outspoken in their condemnation of ‘extreme rendition’, U.S. press coverage has been sporadic, and infrequent stories did not stir up public sentiment. One of the notable exceptions has been the Washington Post, which has written on the subject frequently and recently exposed the C.I.A.’s ‘secret airline’ used to move prisoners to countries where they would very likely face torture. International coverage has been even less visible, with the exception of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
Now, many of the ‘rendered’ prisoners are suing the U.S. Government, thus generating still more news. For example, the Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, alleges he was detained at New York JFK International Airport by U.S. Government authorities enroute back to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia, sent first to Jordan and then to Syria, where he was held for ten months without charge and tortured in detention. The parents of Ahmed Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen, claim their son was held in a Saudi jail for 20 months without charge – and tortured – while the U.S. State and Justice departments claimed no involvement in his detention, and the Saudis claimed they were holding him at the behest of the U.S. As the parents pursued his release in court in the face of ‘secret evidence’, the U.S. government brought him back to America in their custody and charged him with conspiring to assassinate President Bush.
Other suits involve U.S. citizens held by the American military, Australians held at Guantanamo Bay, and a German national spirited off to detention in Afghanistan.
While the total numbers of those “rendered” during the Bush Administration are unknown, former C.I.A. director George Tenet testified to the 9/11 Commission in October 2002 that more than 70 people had been subjected to renditions prior to September 11, 2001. That number is thought to have increased substantially post-9/11.
While public reaction still falls far short of an ‘outcry’, the ‘rendition’ issue has now worked its way to Congress. Last week, U.S. Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced legislation that would end the practice. His bill, the “Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act", requires the State Department to annually compile a list of countries believed to torture and mistreat detainees and prohibits the United States from sending individuals to those countries. It also rejects current State Department practice of obtaining assurances from a country known to torture that it will not torture a particular individual.
Introducing the bill last week, Rep. Markey said, “Extraordinary rendition is wrong because it: violates international treaties that the United States has signed and ratified, including most notably Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture, which prohibits sending a person to another state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” The practice, he charged, “Undermines the moral integrity of America in the eyes of the world (and) ensures that American captives are likely to be tortured by others out of reciprocity, regardless of the urgency of the pleas of our government or the victim’s family.”
Torture, Markey said, “is morally repugnant whether we do it or whether we ask another country to do it for us. It is morally wrong whether it captured on film or whether it goes on behind closed doors unannounced to the American people.”
The bill does permit legal, treaty-based extradition, in which suspects have the right to appeal in a U.S. court to block the proposed transfer based on the likelihood that they would be subjected to torture or other inhumane treatment.