So opens the report, “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition”, commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative. Those words were spoken by Vice President Dick Cheney, the man most closely associated with the embrace by the U.S. national security apparatus of the “dark side” after 9/11. But given our understanding of the events which have unfolded since 2009, they may as well have been spoken by President Barack Obama.
The focus of the report is on the practise of extraordinary rendition: “transfer—without legal process—of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation” (5). ‘Kidnapping’ or ‘abduction’ would be a more appropriate word. We have long known that our government engaged in the practise, and in that sense, the report is not revelatory. What it does, however, is provide some numbers and names: data which, understandably given its literally criminal behaviour, our government was not interested in releasing.
A minimum of 136 people were abducted and handed over to foreign governments for imprisonment and torture. Fifty-four foreign governments had a hand in what was and remains a truly global Axis of Illegality. Some of them are the usual suspects: Saudi Arabia, the Czech Republic, Britain. Others were governments with which we were ostensibly not on good terms: Syria and Zimbabwe. Some are countries that pride themselves on their human rights record or anti-colonial credentials: Canada, South Africa, Sweden. Others were countries which liked to criticise U.S. national security policy in public whilst singing a different tune in private: Germany. Several include countries which increasingly comprise the next front in the U.S. War of Terror: Kenya, Mauritania, Somalia.
The most recent origins of this practise are to be found in the post 9/11 period when, “President George W Bush authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to commence a secret detention program under which suspected terrorists were held in CIA prisons (also known as ‘black sites’) outside the United States, where they were subjected to interrogation methods that involved torture and other abuses. At about the same time, he also granted the CIA expansive authority to engage in ‘extraordinary rendition’ defined here as the transfer—without legal process—of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation” (11). These programs were very transparently designed to evade the law.
The report is biting, remarking that “today, more than a decade after September 11, there is no doubt that high-ranking Bush administration officials bear responsibility for authorizing human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition, and the impunity that they have enjoyed to date remains a matter of significant concern” (5). This is a matter of concern not, as some flippant commentators would have us believe, because liberals are out to get former Bush Administration employees. After all, liberals are just as complicit in this Axis of Illegality as are conservatives. Pursuing these abductions and renditions is important because of the precedent that such impunity creates. It is important because otherwise we are unapologetic about committing serious crimes: kidnapping, torture, and detention without trial.
Because make no mistake, we’ve broken laws. Jingoists in the United States will spurn the reams of international law our crimes would require to describe, but “torture violates not only international conventions signed or acknowledged by the U.S., but 18 U.S. C. 2340A, ‘a federal criminal statute that provides criminal penalties for acts of torture—including attempts and conspiracy to commit such acts—committed outside the United States’” (23).
The abuse has been followed by an extraordinary whitewash. The report found that (surprise!) “the United States and most of its partner governments have failed to conduct effective investigations into secret detention and extraordinary rendition” (7).
Lest we think that we have moved on, the report noted that “it appears that the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition, choosing to rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries and post-transfer monitoring of detainee treatment” (7). As the examples in the latter part of the report demonstrate in exhaustive detail, neither of these practises have prevented dreadful brutality in the past, and there is no reason to think that they will do so in the future. Obama’s vaunted anti-torture executive order was “crafted to preserve the CIA’s authority to detain terrorist suspects on a short-term transitory basis prior to rendering them to another country for interrogation or trail” (7). U.S. courts have refused to hear cases of those wrongfully tortured and detained, citing security (8). The President only required the CIA to close long-term facilities (20), and evidence suggests that the U.S. continues to maintain as many as 20 torture prisons in Afghanistan, and others in Somalia (21). And those are the facilities of which we have some inkling. What is even more frightening is what might exist deeper in the shadows.
Only two of upwards of 99 cases of CIA abuse and torture were investigated (20), and even those two investigations were discontinued when Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt” (20), a decidedly different standard than that used to evaluate the individuals whom the CIA or its hired thugs yanked off the street, all-too-frequently on the basis of fabricated intelligence, or having mistaken them for someone else entirely. Many people who suffered this injustice remain in custody, never having been charged with anything.
The CIA has also committed the crime of “enforced disappearance”, an abuse perfected if not necessarily pioneered by U.S.-supported Latin American dictators during the ‘70s, when normal legal apparatuses were stymied by ‘objectionable’ individuals being whisked away, either murdered or imprisoned, and all knowledge of their existence denied. Such people, as described, for example, by Alicia Partnoy in her book The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, cease to exist, and their families, friends, and communities have no legal recourse given that their abduction is never acknowledged by the state. There is something downright evil about such crimes, and as the cases outlined in the latter portion of the report illustrate, there are a number of people whose whereabouts have remained unknown since they initially fell into U.S. custody.
People have a habit of meeting calls for justice with the refrain that we must let bygones be bygones, that this was in the past and that focussing on the individuals who committed these crimes will not help things in the present. But what would we do if faced with a criminal who serially murdered, kidnapped, and abused people? I think that what people are really stunned by is the enormity of the crimes, and the prospect of finding not just CIA officials and military personnel, but high-ranking cabinet secretaries, our Vice President, and our President guilty of overseeing the construction of such an odious system.
The other refrain is, of course, that of Dick Cheney, who explains that we must meet violence with violence. But one begins to wonder after reading the stories of our victims: what exactly are we being saved from by these brutal tactics? We clearly live in a culture which tolerates and at various times in the past decade has applauded systematic cruelty, brutality, lawlessness. We have extraordinarily rendered people right out of existence, for once they went into Bagram, Guantanamo, into prisons in Egypt or Somalia, they became non-persons, out of the reach of the law, beyond the reach of their family, their citizenship, and the personhood appended to it rendered meaningless. Perhaps what we really need is protection from what we have the capacity to do to ourselves.
Because today in the United States, there seems to be a consensus on torture. Some approve of it, and those who do not approve take care define it sufficiently narrowly that they can safely condone manifestly immoral practises. Others who disapprove maintain that we still cannot prosecute those who broke the law, abducted, and tortured people. Some, like the President, concoct elaborate, cerebral excuses which are sufficiently complex that I can well imagine that they enable him to sleep at night—not, it must be understood, from any moral comfort, than from the exhaustion which must surely be engendered after fabricating such fantastical chains of illogic. Others (John McCain, Lindsey Graham) oppose torture while the cameras are rolling, but favour it once the fawning media have receded out of view.