Report exposes new details on U.S. extraordinary rendition and torture programs

A recent protest of torture and extraordinary rendition advocate John Brennan, who President Obama has nominated to head the CIA.

A recent protest of torture and extraordinary rendition advocate John Brennan, who President Obama has nominated to head the CIA.

A 213-page report just released by the Open Society Justice Initiative provides the most comprehensive account to date of the extraordinary rendition program run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The report, entitled “Globalizing Torture,” documents how the CIA conspired with dozens of governments around the world to build a secret extraordinary rendition and detention program that spanned the globe.

Defining “extraordinary rendition” as the transfer without legal process of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation, Open Society notes that both the secret detention program and the extraordinary rendition program were designed to place detainee interrogations beyond the reach of the law. Torture was a hallmark of both, the report points out.

“Today, more than a decade after September 11, 2001, it is well-established that high-ranking Bush administration officials are responsible for torture and other human rights violations associated with the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations,” reads the report. “The failure of U.S. authorities to hold these officials accountable remains a matter of significant concern.”

By engaging in extraordinary rendition, secret detention and widespread torture, the U.S. government violated international law and its own domestic laws. And by enlisting the participation of dozens of foreign governments in these violations, the U.S. further eroded longstanding human rights protections enshrined in international law, especially the preemptory norm against torture.

But despite the scale of torture and other human rights abuses associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, the Open Society report notes that the United States has failed to conduct effective investigations into these criminal policies.

To date, the U.S. and the vast majority of the other 54 governments involved have refused to acknowledge their participation, much less compensate the victims, or hold accountable those most responsible for the program and its abuses. Further, the report laments, despite a promise from Barack Obama soon after being sworn in as president in January 2009, it appears that the Obama administration did not in fact end extraordinary rendition. Instead, it simply chose to rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries.

Open Society therefore recommends to the U.S. government that it ceases relying on “diplomatic assurances” against torture as a basis for transferring individuals to foreign countries, and that it discloses information relating to human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations.

Further, the U.S. administration and senate should work to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA detention and interrogation.

“The taint of torture associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations will continue to cling to the United States and its partner governments as long as they fail to air the truth and hold their officials accountable,” Open Society concludes. “The impunity currently enjoyed by responsible parties also paves the way for future abuses in counterterrorism operations.”

The Guardian pointed out that the report’s publication appears to have been timed to coincide with the Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday of John Brennan, who Obama has chosen to head the CIA. Brennan is one of the architects of the torture regime of the previous administration and is widely expected to be questioned about his association with those policies.

In 2005, he offered a robust defense of the Bush administration’s extraordinary rendition policy, stating:

I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. Government has been involved in. And I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

The Open Society report takes issue with this position, noting that “torture is not only illegal and immoral, but also ineffective for producing reliable intelligence.” The report points to the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who had been rendered by the United States to Egypt in 2002. Under threat of torture at the hands of Egyptian officials, al-Libi fabricated information relating to Iraq’s provision of chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda. This fabricated information was then used by the U.S. as part of its justification for invading Iraq.

As Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote in her book, The Dark Side, “The extraordinary rendition program produced a file of confessions from prisoners claiming to have suffered unimaginable torment.” Much of the intelligence gathered from what Brennan asserted as a “vital program” proved to be “demonstrably false.”

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