Monday, February 02, 2009

Not all renditions are the same

By Michael J.W. Stickings

On Sunday, the L.A. Times, certainly one of the more credible sources in American journalism, reported that Obama has authorized the CIA to continue to "carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States." Essentially, the report went, Obama was going to maintain the "controversial counter-terrorism tool" completely "intact": "[T]he Obama administration appears to have determined that the rendition program was one component of the Bush administration's war on terrorism that it could not afford to discard. The key source: an anonymous "Obama administration official."

Without thinking too much about it -- I had a Super Bowl to prepare for, after all -- this came as something of a shock to me, given that Obama has already put an end to the use of torture and announced his intention to close Gitmo, two key reversals of Bush-era malevolence. There must be something else to it, I thought, holding off on blogging about it.

And, today, Scott Horton of Harper's, a fantastic reporter in his own right, writes that the LAT "got punked." It misrepresented a European Parliament report and otherwise failed to distinguish between extraordinary rendition, which was the Bush policy, and simple rendition, which has been in place for a long time:

[The LAT] misses the difference between the renditions program, which has been around since the Bush 41 Administration at least (and arguably in some form even in the Reagan Administration) and the extraordinary renditions program which was introduced by Bush 43 and clearly shut down under an executive order issued by President Obama in his first week.

There are two fundamental distinctions between the programs. The extraordinary renditions program involved the operation of long-term detention facilities either by the CIA or by a cooperating host government together with the CIA, in which prisoners were held outside of the criminal justice system and otherwise unaccountable under law for extended periods of time. A central feature of this program was rendition to torture, namely that the prisoner was turned over to cooperating foreign governments with the full understanding that those governments would apply techniques that even the Bush Administration considers to be torture. This practice is a felony under current U.S. law, but was made a centerpiece of Bush counterterrorism policy.

The earlier renditions program regularly involved snatching and removing targets for purposes of bringing them to justice by delivering them to a criminal justice system. It did not involve the operation of long-term detention facilities and it did not involve torture. There are legal and policy issues with the renditions program, but they are not in the same league as those surrounding extraordinary rendition. Moreover, Obama committed to shut down the extraordinary renditions program, and continuously made clear that this did not apply to the renditions program.

The LAT, that is, got it wrong -- and it wasn't "punked" as much as it was careless and irresponsible. It accused Obama of being duplicitous, of banning the use of torture on U.S. turf while continuing the Bush policy that sends detainees off to be tortured elsewhere. And it suggests that Obama thinks that extraordinary rendition is actually a useful tool with which "to go after the bad guys," to quote that anonymous source.

As Horton stresses, though, there is no continuation from Bush to Obama on extraordinary rendition, just as there isn't on torture and Gitmo. Obama has made his positions, and his policies, clear, even if some in the media -- and not just those on the right who wish to see Obama fail and/or wish to have Bush vindicated -- fail miserably to tell it like it really is.

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