More Confusion on Renditions: The Role of Ostensibly Liberal Bloggers

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This diary explores the serious problems with the justifications for a limited, legal, and supposedly humane system of renditions to be run by the CIA (or other governmental agency). Such justifications would thus inform the review ordered by President Obama on interrogations and rendition in general.

In contradistinction to the views of Scott Horton, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and TalkLeft’s Scribe, among others, I maintain that any program of extraordinary rendition, i.e., any extrajudicial abduction of a foreign citizen from foreign soil, violates international law. Furthermore, the liberal bloggers mentioned above have either ignored or downplayed or misrepresented that fact.

The issue seems to bring out a lot of passion, as it should. For one thing, it raises some criticisms of Obama and the left at a time when we are fighting the right-wing on the economy, torture, military policy, etc. But the torture/renditions issue goes to the heart of civilized international relations, and must not get lost in the shuffle. Please read on and certainly feel free to voice your comments. Substantive and respectful comments, even criticisms, are always appreciated.

A “Legitimate Place” for Renditions?

There’s a lot of smoke spewing up from the bits and pieces of Bush’s leftover torture program, as the Obama administration is trying to refashion policies around apprehension, detention and interrogation of prisoners in what used to be called (or still is) the “Global War on Terror.”

The foulest smell issues from the controversy over using cruel, inhuman, and degrading and/or torture techniques in the Army Field Manual (AFM). Obama, supported by some human rights organizations, especially Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, has proposed making the AFM its “single standard” for all interrogations, including those done by the CIA.

While the CIA publicly balks, one wonders if they are that unhappy with the AFM’s Appendix M, which codifies the old CIA interrogation doctrine of regression of the prisoner’s personality through use of solitary confinement (isolation), sleep deprivation (debility), sensory deprivation, and a harsh form of “Fear Up” (dread)? In any case, Appendix M violates the very international documents Obama claims to uphold. That contradiction cannot hold, and other human rights groups, like Physicians for Human Rights and Center for Constitutional Rights, have publicly called for the elimination of Appendix M prior to acceptance of the AFM as any kind of interrogation template.

But if the AFM is the foulest, the controversy over rendition is the most opaque and contentious. Liberal bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon defending President Obama’s Executive Order calling for a review of “the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States….” Forget that Obama did not outlaw the practice of rendition. But this is because, according to certain liberal bloggers, and a few human rights spokespeople (like Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch), “Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place” for renditions.

These individuals — and Scott Horton and Hilzoy are two prominent such bloggers, followed somewhat by the more ambivalent soul-searching of the otherwise usually precise Glenn Greenwald on the issue — believe that extraordinary renditions are something qualitatively different than regular or normal renditions. While U.S. Supreme Court decisions may see some distinction, these are about renditions “to justice” in a U.S. court (the Ker-Frisbie doctrine). No one is arguing that the renditions being considered by the U.S. today are these kinds of renditions, so the argument about “good” or “lawful” renditions is specious, and meant to confuse or muddy the waters.

In a truly extraordinary confluence of opinions, these same liberal bloggers either support the AFM as is or remain silent about the question of abuse in the Army Field Manual. Why the silence and/or support for such a heinous set of procedures? That’s a question to be taken up another day.

According to Horton et al., extraordinary renditions are war crimes, because the government sends prisoners to foreign countries to be tortured. (That is certainly correct, so far as that goes.) “Legal” renditions — as defined by Richard Clarke in a recent article, whose opinion was specifically endorsed by Horton and the anti-torture blog, Back to Our Senses — are examples of “renditions performed by the American government [and] are legal, effective, and done within the scope of human rights” (emphasis added). And if you think differently, then you are “ridiculously misinformed”, a “buffoon,” a “moron” (the latter by a Daily Kos commenter to yours truly).

Truly, you can get a lawyer to argue that black is white and white is black, if you pay him or her enough, or if they have a well-entrenched political agenda.

“Expert” Opinions and the Rendition Question

Most of what passes for political commentary these days relies on the received “wisdom” of experts. So, if Scott Horton, an “expert” in international law, says that there is a “distinction between ‘extraordinary renditions’ and ‘renditions'” (one is supposedly legal, if rare, the other is a serious crime), then it must be true. No one thinks to ask other authorities, and the sides line up based upon loyalty to their favorite authority.

There may be no other way around this, especially for non-lawyers like myself. And even among legal experts there may be profound differences of opinion, which hopefully are decided by respected and powerful courts, like the U.S. Supreme Court, or an appropriate international juridical body.

When I was looking to form an opinion on rendition, I did not just read a few blog entries by my favorite blogger or columnist, as trustworthy as I may usually find them. I did some of my own research and reading. It’s really worth the effort. I rarely found “extraordinary rendition” separated from that of “rendition,” unless the focus of a document were purely on the Bush Administration practice of renditions to torture. The latter fact is part of definitional problem involved in discussing this issue, as “extraordinary rendition” has become synonymous with Bush’s program, but in fact E.R. existed prior to Bush’s tenure, i.e., as a covert program used as a tactic, since at least 1995.

What I found in my search was plenty of examples in the law explaining the differences between lawful rendition, which we call extradition, and abduction. Here’s a few, courtesy of Justice Stevens:

Extradition treaties prevent international conflict by providing agreed upon standards so that the parties may cooperate and avoid retaliatory invasions of territorial sovereignty. According to one writer, before extradition treaties became common, European States often granted asylum to fugitives from other States, with the result that “a sovereign could enforce the return of fugitives only by force of arms . . . . Extradition as an inducement to peaceful relations and friendly cooperation between states remained of little practical significance until after World War I.” M. Bassiouni, International Extradition and World Public Order 6 (1974)

If you are enforcing your New World Order, I suppose you don’t care about friendly cooperation between states. But how would Americans react if Afghanis kidnapped Bush or Cheney for crimes and brought them back to Afghanistan for trial, or even more to the point, delivered them over to the North Koreans for interrogation? Or how about Cubans kidnapping Luis Posada Carriles, who bombed Cubana flight 455 in September 1976 (with CIA foreknowledge, by the way), and today resides in the U.S.? Why not just junk all treaties and let the rule of might makes right the ultimate arbiter?

When Abraham Sofaer, Legal Adviser of the State Department, was questioned at a congressional hearing, he resisted the notion that such seizures were acceptable: ” `Can you imagine us going into Paris and seizing some person we regard as a terrorist . . .? [H]ow would we feel if some foreign nation–let us take the United Kingdom–came over here and seized some terrorist suspect in New York City, or Boston, or Philadelphia, . . . because we refused through the normal channels of international, legal communications, to extradite that individual?’ ” Bill To Authorize Prosecution of Terrorists and Others Who Attack U. S. Government Employees and Citizens Abroad: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 99th Cong., 1st Sess., 63 (1985).

The Congressional Research Service, which produces material so that Congress can understand important legislative issues, has made it clear that its own analysis of rendition was about extrajudicial seizures. So did Amnesty International in a document on “‘Rendition’ and secret detention.’ I think AI really described the salient problems I have with rendition, whether it’s rendition to torture or not (assuming one can really determine what will happen to a prisoner who has been kidnapped and delivered to a foreign, or even domestic, penal or governmental or intelligence agency). I will quote it here somewhat at length (emphases added):

Amnesty International uses the term “rendition” to refer to a variety of practices by the US authorities involving transfers of individuals from one country to another, without any form of judicial or administrative process such as extradition. These practices, usually carried out in secret, include transferring “war on terror” detainees into the custody of other states, assuming custody of individuals from foreign authorities and abducting suspects on foreign soil.

The practice of transferring a detainee from US custody to the custody of a foreign state is usually called “extraordinary rendition” in the USA, and appears to have been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since 1995….

Some victims of “rendition” have later turned up in official US detention centres, such as Guantánamo Bay. Others have simply “disappeared” after being arrested by US agents or turned over to US custody.

It has been reported that the CIA, often using covert aircraft leased by front companies, has flown individuals to countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Most of the states to which the USA transfers these individuals are known to use torture and other ill-treatment in interrogations. It is alleged that states which are known to practise torture have been specifically selected to receive detainees for interrogation and that detainees have been threatened by US interrogators that they will be sent to such states.

It has also been reported that victims of “rendition” transferred to US custody from other countries have been held in US-run secret detention centres outside US territory (sometimes called “black sites”)….

The US administration has acknowledged it uses “rendition”, maintaining that the practice is aimed at transferring “war on terror” detainees from the country where they were captured to their home country or to other countries where they can be questioned, held or brought to justice. It has contended that these transfers are carried out in accordance with US law and treaty obligations….

Amnesty International believes that these practices are illegal because they bypass any judicial or administrative process such as extradition. Under international law, it is illegal to transfer people from one country to another without any kind of judicial or administrative process.

Do you hear that, Scott Horton? Under international law. If you want more detailed legal discussion, please see Matteo M. Winkler’s article, When ‘Extraordinary’ Means Illegal: International law and the European Reactions to the United States Rendition Program, Section 3.1 – Can Abduction Be Justified? (Yale Law School Student Scholarship Series, Paper 46). Also see Justice Stevens’ dissent in U.S. v. Alvarez Machain, as well as F.A. Mann, “Reflections on the Prosecution of Persons Abducted in Breach of International Law”, in International Law at a Time of Perplexity, 1988, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers:

A State which authorizes the abduction of a person from the territory of another sovereign State is guilty of a violation of public international law. This principle is supported by considerable State practice, numerous decisions of municipal courts, and a large body of doctrinal opinion. Its basis is the incontrovertible rule that exercise of physical force by one State without the latter’s consent constitutes an excess of international jurisdiction or a violation of the ‘principle of respect, which is guaranteed by not only Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations and other texts, because these merely respond to firmly established and longstanding tenets of customary international law.’

But let us now return to Amnesty International’s discussion:

Moreover, most victims of “rendition” were arrested and detained illegally in the first place: some were abducted; others were refused access to any legal process. Many victims of “rendition” have been or continue to be held in prolonged arbitrary detention and they have been or continue to be subjected to enforced disappearance. All of the victims of “rendition” Amnesty International has interviewed have also said they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

“Rendition” usually involves multiple human rights violations, including abduction, arbitrary arrest and detention and unlawful transfer without due process of law. It also violates a number of other human rights safeguards: for example, victims of “rendition” have no possibility of challenging their detention, or the arbitrary decision to transfer them to another country.

“Rendition” is a key element in the global system of secret transfers and arbitrary detention. This system is designed to detain people, often for obtaining intelligence from them, free from any legal restriction or judicial oversight.

We are left with this quandry: why the wide gulf of opinions on rendition? Horton and others can point to ill-informed bloggers, constructing strawmen which they can then easily tear down, all the better to strut their expertise before the admiring crowd. But you won’t see them tearing down Amnesty International or Reprieve, who totally oppose all renditions as ignoble and illegal acts of extrajudicial power and injustice. That might alienate some of their readers, who then might investigate for themselves.

What kind of game, we must ask at this crucial time in the fight against torture, including the full panoply of repressive measures routinely used by the Bush Administration, the Pentagon and the CIA, are these liberal columnists playing? Is it anything that different from what the mainstream press has done for years, i.e., toady up to the current administration or the opposition party, the better to keep access to sources? Or is there something more ideological, or even, heaven forbid, more sinister going on there? Is there any connection with the fact that an important civil suit on renditions, which also challenges the U.S.’s state secrets defense, namely Mohamad v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. is about to go to trial? (Glenn Greenwald just interviewed Ben Wizner, the ACLU attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Jeppesen case.) Or is this just about securing future jobs in an Obama administration?

The Eichmann Case

Horton points to the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann by the Israelis around 50 years ago as an example of “the prototype of an appropriate rendition.” Here are the results of Horton’s unfortunate example, taken from an article by Raanan Rein in Jewish Social Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 (emphasis added):

The election of Arturo Frondizi as president of Argentina in February 1958 was welcome news to both the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the leaders of the local Jewish community. And he had not lived in the presidential palace for long before their expectations appeared to have been justified. The Jews of Argentina felt a growing sense of security and well-being, and relations between Jerusalem and Buenos Aires grew closer. The kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960, however, interrupted this idyll, precipitating a crisis that nearly severed the ties between the two countries and threatened Argentine Jews’ sense of personal security. The Argentine Jewish community, which was then just marking the hundredth anniversary of its existence, became the target of a wave of antisemitic terror and nationalist attacks that sought to cast doubt on Jewish citizens’ loyalty to the Argentine republic.

Thus, the “appropriate rendition by one party causes untold suffering and unforeseen political consequences for a vulnerable population. One wonders if Horton knows also that both the West Germans and the U.S. knew the location of Eichmann for two years before the Israeli kidnapping and did nothing to induce Argentina to arrest or otherwise extradite the man.

Or does Horton forget or not know that the Israeli court trying Eichmann itself alluded to violations of international law in his capture, which were adroitly “remedied” by getting the Argentines to forego, after the fact, asserting their sovereignty in the case?

The Israeli Court also determined that because “Argentina has condoned the violation of her sovereignty and has waived her claims, including that for the return of the Appellant, any violation of international law that may have been involved in this incident has thus been remedied.”

I’m not saying that Eichmann shouldn’t have been tried, nor that he didn’t receive justice. But that’s poetic or moral justice… not law. My problem with the use of kidnapping by states is a simple one. Who decides when a person is beyond the legal pale? Who makes the justice? Who decides that abduction is acceptable? How will our civilization rule itself, by the law of talion, or the law of due process?

Originally posted as “More Confusion on Renditions: The Role of Ostensibly Liberal Bloggers” at Invictus.


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  1. Wow.  Don’t think I’ve hotlisted an essay here more than a couple of times.

    Haven’t read the whole thing, but what I have read is dead on, Valtin.

    Part of the problem is ignorance (including my own) on this issue, not having done the research you so helpfully provide.  ðŸ˜€

    And you’ve nailed it that “lawyer/bloggers” (or wannabes), are doing their best to provide opposing analysis, to put it mildly.

    I’m going to read this very carefully.

    And as an aside, I think this fits in very well with what davidseth is writing about in his series on the federal death penalty.

  2. If you can stand yet another analogy, look what happens when somebody wanted in one state (say NY) gets arrested in another (say Connecticut).  There’s a procedure, an extradition procedure, to move the “fugitive” from the state of arrest (Conn) to NY.  It involves (a) the fugitive’s saying, “Yes, I’ll go back to NY to face the charge,” or his/her saying, “No, I’m not the person they are looking for, and I wasn’t in NY when the crime was conducted.”  Note: there are the only 2 things that will block an extradition (see, Michigan v. Doran).  Then there’s a flurry of paperwork, and voila! the fugitive (if it’s the right person and s/he was in NY at the time of the crime) faces the music in NY.

    My premise: it should be the same between countries. One country holds the “fugitive”, the process goes forward, and finally, the “fugitive” is turned over to the country that wants him/her.

    Now, make believe that the person wanted in NY is arrested in another country (say Mexico).  There’s an assertion (I think it is nonsense) that there could be a “rendition,” i.e. the NY State Troopers or the FBI or the CIA could kidnap the person in Mexico, throw him/her on a plane or boat to the US, drag him/her to NY, and throw him in front of a NY judge to answer the charges.  Forget for a second what the alleged crime is, whether it’s stealing a pack of gum or committing a terror/murder.  Some folks are arguing that this is OK because the US courts haven’t dismissed charges against persons who were kidnapped and dragged to trial in the US.  I think it’s not OK.  I think the rulings are incorrect.

    Now, make believe that the person is arrested in another country (say Mexico) and for reasons of “national security” and “mumbo jumbo” the US wants to send him/her to Sudan, so that s/he will fully explain his/her crimes and face compulsion to do so.  Nobody in their right mind is going to tell me that kidnapping this person, throwing him/her on the plane or boat, and dragging him to Sudan, and then putting him in a torture chamber is OK.  But that’s the loophole that the Obama administration is leaving open.

    I’m with Valtin on this.  Leaving that loophole open is the worst kind of bs.  Those lawyer/bloggers (I could take offense at this) who are making this argument are making a serious mistake.  They need to be asked what they would say if they were on the receiving end of this “procedure.”

    • kj on February 5, 2009 at 04:00

    placeholder early before-read thanks, i’m falling behind.  

    (and falling behind with davidseth’s series as well.)

    • Valtin on February 5, 2009 at 05:06

    to be suspicious about Obama’s intentions? Seems not, as news comes out of UK and the Binyam Mohamed trial.

    ACLU press release late today:

    Obama Endorses Bush Secrecy On Torture And Rendition (2/4/2009)


    CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; [email protected]

    NEW YORK – After the British High Court ruled that evidence of British resident Binyam Mohamed’s extraordinary rendition and torture at Guantánamo Bay must remain secret because of threats made by the Bush administration to halt intelligence sharing, the Obama administration told the BBC today in a written statement: “The United States thanks the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens.”

    The following can be attributed to Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union:

    “Hope is flickering. The Obama administration’s position is not change. It is more of the same. This represents a complete turn-around and undermining of the restoration of the rule of law. The new American administration shouldn’t be complicit in hiding the abuses of its predecessors.”

    When the ACLU learned of the High Court’s ruling earlier today, it sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging her to clarify the Obama administration’s position relating to the Mohamed case and calling on her to reject the Bush administration’s policy of using false claims of national security to avoid judicial review of controversial programs.

    The ACLU’s letter to Secretary of State Clinton is available online at:

    The British High Court ruling is available online at:

    I’d say the gloves are coming off.

  3. I refer you to my comment on your previous thread Problems, which I think you might have seen, but not entirely read.  It doesn’t address all that you have mentioned, but enough to give some insight as to what is going on.  

    I am not giving up faith in Obama — in view of so much that I have read just this day!  What I think we must do is to ALL of us collectively put up a big fight for that which we do not concur with!  LTE’s, calls to Congressmen, etc.  

    There is no rest for the “wicked” — I don’t know whoever made that up, but it’s wrong, it should state that there is “no rest for the weary.”

  4. to those glorious pre-911 days when the MIC after the demise of the Soviet Union needed a new enemy.  They rightly chose Islam based upon their numbers and failure to embrace the modern western world and belief systems.

    Even Henry Kissinger came out with it and said so.

    In all of our “noble” causes why is it we completely ignore war torn spots all over the world when no US commercial interests are involved.  We must have created thousands of future Osamas in the Muslim world by now.

    Should there be rendition of people like Eichman, maybe so but two things which must be erased are the US role as world police and this debilitating cancer which assumes everybody is a “terrorist”.  “We” are tazering pregnant women in wheelchairs.  “We” have to aid people with the transition to digital TeeVee.  God forbid the sheeple go without infotainment.

    They can surely keep secrets when they want to but once all the world knows America does it all bets are off.

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