By William Fisher
As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her team continue to face increasingly harsh criticism from Muslim communities, Amnesty International has issued a new report on one of the practices they criticize most: rendition.
The new report – “Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and disappearance” – describes a U.S. covert operation in which people are arrested or abducted, transferred and held in secret or handed over to countries where they have faced torture and other ill-treatment.
Amnesty lists dozens of destinations around the world where planes associated with "rendition" flights have landed and taken off -- and lists private airlines with permission to land at U.S. military bases worldwide.
The organization says it has records of nearly 1,000 flights directly linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), most of which have used European airspace. It claims these flights have been carried out by planes that “appear to have been permanently operated by the CIA through front companies.”
While the U.S. has acknowledged that it uses rendition -- a fact widely reported in the international press and on television – the new Amnesty report is likely to further complicate Dr. Rice’s current efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of Arabs and other Muslims.
In recent weeks, the Secretary has met with a variety of Muslim groups in the U.S. and abroad. Their view of U.S. policies in the “Global War on Terror” has sometimes been respectful, sometimes raucous, but largely accusatory, skeptical and passionate.
For example, in a recent meeting with British Muslims, Rice heard complaints about U.S. policies in Iraq, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and the American-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Representatives of such groups were present almost everywhere the secretary went during what was billed as a goodwill visit. Many are also telling Rice that the Bush administration should engage, not isolate, the new Hamas government in the Palestinian areas, because it was elected in a process Washington backed.
Local editorial commentary on Rice’s two-day outreach visit to northwest England has been correspondingly harsh. Britain’s Guardian newspaper carried a half-page cartoon showing Rice and her host, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, holding a banner saying: “The Case for War.” The banner was riddled with holes and the caption read, “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire,” a reference to a line in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life.”
Dissatisfaction with U.S. policies has also complicated the work of Rice’s public diplomacy chief, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, a Bush Administration insider tasked by the president to improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world.
During their visit to the United Kingdom, Rice and Hughes defended the continued use of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some terrorist suspects have been held for years without trial. Rice said the U.S. doesn’t want to keep the prison open longer than necessary, but added: “If the alternative is to release people back on the street so they can do harm again, that we’re not going to do.”
Rice said, “The United States recognizes … that there are questions about American foreign policy.” But, she asked Muslims to give the Bush administration credit for ending a six-decade policy of backing dictators in the Middle East and promoting democracy instead.
Virtually every public opinion poll taken in Europe, Asia and the Middle East shows increasing hostility toward the U.S. and plummeting approval for its foreign policies.
Amnesty’s report is unlikely to improve the situation. It details the destinations and ownership of specific aircraft linked to people interviewed by the organization who have been transferred illegally. For example one particular aircraft is known to have made over 100 stops in Guantanamo Bay. Another took a detainee to Egypt from Germany after he was kidnapped in Italy. Amnesty says there were 488 recorded landings or take-offs between February 2001 and July 2005.
The new report says the U.S. “is manipulating commercial arrangements in order to be able to transfer people in violation of international law.” Amnesty’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, said, “It demonstrates the length to which the U.S. government will go to conceal these abductions."
She added, "The callous and calculated multiplicity of abuses is shocking. People captured have been subjected to a range of abuses of human rights by a number of governments acting in collusion, and all of this has been shrouded by secrecy and deceit."
The organization urged the aviation sector to ensure that aviation companies do not lease their aircraft in circumstances in which they may be used in renditions. Specifically, it called on governments to insist that any plane or helicopter used to carry out the missions of the intelligence services be declared a 'state' flight, regardless of whether they are carried out using civilian aircraft, prohibit the use of airspace and airports for renditions and actively investigate suspected rendition cases, and disclose the full extent of these practices and the fate of those whose whereabouts are still unknown.
Egypt has been a prime destination for victims of renditions. The Egyptian prime minister noted in 2005 that the U.S. has transferred some 60-70 detainees to that country, and a former CIA agent with experience in the region believes that "hundreds" of detainees may have been sent by the U.S. to prisons in other Middle Eastern countries.
The U.S. has acknowledged the capture of about 30 "high value" detainees whose whereabouts remain unknown, and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is reportedly investigating some three dozen additional cases of "erroneous rendition", in which people were detained based on flawed evidence or confusion over names.
Criticism of the rendition practice has not been limited to U.S. officials. In Britain, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee has accused ministers of failing in their duty to find out whether Britain has been complicit in US policy. The U.K. government has admitted that 200 suspect CIA flights had used British airspace.
In a report highly critical of the government's attitude toward human rights abuses, members of the committee say they have not been told the full story despite months of trying. They summoned the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, to give evidence again on the issue.
The Council of Europe earlier named five countries that failed to explain what steps they were taking to protect people from being detained and mistreated through rendition.
Meanwhile, criticism continues from human rights and religious leaders in the U.S.
Prof. George Hunsinger, who teaches at Princeton University Theological Seminary and is organizing a National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told IPS, “Outsourcing torture to other regimes is the moral equivalent of practicing it ourselves. How did we enter into league with the world's most despicable torturers? Where is the outcry? What is happening to our country?”
Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, told IPS that rendition “is a symptom of the great illness afflicting our nation, secrecy.” He added, “We need more than just Amnesty International to shine light on these practices -- the American people must stand up and demand knowledge and accountability.”
Jo Guldi, a historian at the University of California at Berkeley, told IPS, “No threat is so great that we can afford to cannibalize the very democratic principles upon which our own freedoms turn.”
And Angelina Fisher, Arthur Helton Fellow at advocacy group Human Rights First, told IPS, “Failure by the United States to address the allegations of extraordinary rendition undermines the United States’ stated commitment to the Convention Against Torture and raises serious questions about the government’s respect for the principles of international cooperation.”
Fisher was one of the primary researchers and authors of a report on rendition issued by the Bar Association of the City of New York and Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law.
It’s unclear – and intelligence experts say improbable – whether in the face of worldwide and persistent criticism, the U.S. has discontinued its rendition program. It has received far harsher criticism of its prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that facility remains very much open for business – and very much in the news.
Yet, given these kinds of policies, one has to wonder whether the Public Diplomacy job that President Bush gave his old Texas buddy, Karen Hughes, is do-able at all. Mr. Bush should know from his training as an MBA that professional marketing can do only so much to sell a flawed product.