Rendition is an established legal procedure whereby a country returns an individual to his country of origin or where he has previously resided. It has been used in immigration cases, to remove felons who are not native born, and in the extradition process whereby a suspect is returned to face trial. But one of the more deplorable policies carried out by the United States government over the past decade has been a variant on that procedure, so-called "extraordinary rendition," which has been a regular function of the Central Intelligence Agency since the time of the Clinton administration.
Greatly expanded since 9/11, extraordinary rendition consists of kidnapping a foreigner somewhere outside the United States and returning him to his country of origin or a third country for interrogation and imprisonment. As many of the renditions have been to countries where torture is part of the interrogation process, it has sometimes been described as torture by proxy. Rendition has frequently been a preferred tactic of intelligence and law enforcement agencies because it takes place overseas and therefore operates outside the United States legal system, meaning that there are no constitutional protections and due process. The suspect does not have to be brought into court, charged, and tried, and the government does not have to make a legal case against him. This is advantageous because the victims of the process most often are snatched based on information provided by informants or foreign governments, intelligence that is frequently inaccurate and would not stand up as evidence in a U.S. court of law.
Extraordinary renditions are often carried out with the consent and cooperation of the local authorities, as they too are frequently interested in removing a potential "troublemaker" from their streets without having to go through a judicial process. This cooperation can sometimes have unfortunate consequences. The kidnapping of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar from the streets of Milan was a major theatrical production, involving a cast of hundreds of CIA and U.S. military personnel as well as Italian intelligence officers. A Milan court, recognizing that the abduction was a crime, is currently trying five Italian intelligence officials as well as 26 identified CIA officers in absentia. Abu Omar was tortured by the Egyptians and later released from prison because he had no information of value.
It is reported that President Barack Obama has quietly approved the continuation of the rendition program by the CIA and might even expand it, though he will not render anyone to a country that practices torture as part of its judicial process. If that is so, it means that the advocates of the policy have prevailed, permitting the removal of a suspected terrorist or terrorism supporter without having to put the person on trial. As the intelligence benefits obtained from renditions carried out during the past seven years are classified, it is difficult for the public to judge the validity of the arguments that were made in favor of the procedure, particularly as those who have been publicly opposed to the process were given no voice in the deliberations. As Obama has reportedly eliminated the torture aspect of the procedure, he has also limited the intelligence that might in theory be obtained, since interrogation by torture was more or less the objective of the extraordinary rendition process. Under the new guidelines, CIA will apparently be able to hold suspects for a short time to question them before transferring them overseas to a jurisdiction where they can be tried.
As in the case of Abu Omar, media accounts of past renditions reveal that there is little in the way of any due process and that the benefits obtained are not so clear. Maher Arar, a Syrian engineer living in Canada, was denied entry at New York’s JFK airport in September 2002 then rendered to Syria, where he was tortured before being released 10 months later. He was on a no-fly list based on false information and was innocent of any wrongdoing, even by the rather relaxed standards of the Department of Homeland Security. Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese extraction, was likewise detained by U.S. authorities while trying to enter Macedonia in late 2003, because his name was similar to that of a known al-Qaeda operative. He was flown to Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned for five months and tortured by American interrogators. Both Arar and al-Masri were victims of mistaken identity.
Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian resident of Britain, is another prominent extraordinary rendition case. He was picked up in a security sweep in Pakistan in 2002 even though there is no evidence that he was involved in any illegal activity. He was then rendered to several CIA prisons, where he was allegedly tortured. He is currently appealing his detention both in Britain and the U.S., but the Obama administration has invoked the "states secret" privilege to reject his case without a hearing, a move similar to Bush administration efforts to enable the government to hold suspects without any judicial review. In the British appeal, Foreign Secretary David Miliband reportedly contradicted himself when providing evidence in the case, first saying that the U.S. would cut off intelligence-sharing if information on Mohamed’s torture were revealed, then denying that he had said any such thing. Binyam Mohamed is on hunger strike in Guantanamo prison and is reported to be close to death.
Renditions like that of Binyam Mohamed are often based on information provided by informants, who may themselves have agendas or may be acting out a vendetta. Their information can rarely be confirmed independently, but the process can ruin someone’s life and destroy a family. Rendition is a legal process that operates with no regard for constitutional rights in terms of the evidence used to justify the procedure. If it involves kidnapping, it is carried out through the U.S. government’s claim to have extraterritorial rights to seize terrorism supporters anywhere and at any time. There is no automatic judicial review connected to it and, when carried out by the CIA, it instead relies on the judgment of a bureaucrat in Washington or elsewhere who determines that a person of interest is indeed connected to terrorism in such a way as to justify seizing, repatriating, and interrogating him. That decision might be based on information that is inadvertently inaccurate or that is deliberately distorted for any of a number of reasons.
Rendition as practiced by the CIA is not a neutral process driven by some objective standard. As far as can be determined, renditions in the past seven years have only been of Muslims, mostly Arabs. Numerous other groups on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism roster are apparently immune from rendition, suggesting that the procedure is less about eliminating terrorists than about eliminating what is regrettably described as Islamofascism. If the United States government were truly interested in using rendition as a tool against terrorism, it would have seized members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq, both terrorist groups that have operated freely in U.S.- controlled regions of Iraq. It would abduct and render guerrillas from Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) who operate and raise funds openly in Europe, Tamil Tigers buying weapons in India, and even radicals linked to the Brooklyn-born Israeli fanatic Meir Kahane. But it has failed to act in any of those cases, indicating that rendition is less a policy than a convenience. If so, it is time for CIA Director-designate Leon Panetta and President Barack Obama to state clearly and emphatically that the United States will no longer practice extraordinary rendition and that any terrorist suspect moved overseas will be allowed a fair and open trial to determine his or her guilt or innocence.