The U.S. government is again being buffeted by winds of controversy over its handling of suspected terrorists. The Central Intelligence Agency has made a practice of turning some suspected terrorists over to another country's intelligence service for detention and interrogation. Some of those countries have poor human rights records.
The practice goes by the blandly bureaucratic name of rendition, and here's how it works: Police or intelligence service agents of a country pick up a terrorism suspect at the request of the CIA and turn him over to CIA agents, who then whisk him out to another country, usually in the Middle East. There the suspect is questioned by local interrogators on behalf of the CIA.
Critics say the practice implicitly condones torture because some of the countries where the prisoners are taken have questionable human rights records. Some prisoners who were subjected to rendition and subsequently released, have claimed they were tortured while in third-country custody.
Defenders of rendition say it gives the CIA greater flexibility in the war on terror, and that safeguards are taken to insure there is no mistreatment of detainees.
Asked about rendition recently, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the matter is classified and refused to discuss it. However, he said the United States neither engages in torture nor knowingly sends anyone to another country to be tortured. "We also have an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they will be tortured," he said.
Jeffrey Smith is the former general counsel for the CIA, the intelligence agency's top legal advisor. In a telephone interview, he says the agency has always obtained assurances from the country involved that the suspect would not be tortured or mistreated. "In my experience the United States has always been very careful when we send someone to another government to obtain assurances from that government that they will not be tortured," he said. "And we follow up by asking what has happened to the individual, and in some instances actually visiting the individual to make sure that everything's okay. So we do take it very seriously."
Tom Parker, a former British security officer who now lectures on counter-terrorism at Yale University, says such assurances sometimes do not mean very much. "That would just beg the question. If you're getting those guarantees, then why are you sending them in the first place if they're just going to do the same interview you'd do at home? I mean, I just don't find that a believable justification," he said.
Mr. Smith admits that the human rights records of some of the countries involved may be questionable, but that the CIA is diligent in hammering home the message that torture is simply not productive in obtaining useful intelligence. "We do send individuals to some countries whose human rights records have been criticized. But we also think that we have some obligation to work with those countries and to try to, which we are doing, and certainly in my experience I assume is still going on, we work with those countries to try to teach them how to be professional and responsible military and intelligence officers. And we tell them that torture doesn't work," he said.
Mike Scheuer, a former CIA officer, says the agency is again taking the heat for a decision made not by the agency, but by the policymakers it serves. "The problem for the CIA, as always, is that the policymakers didn't think it through. And we repeatedly told them, 'you know, this is not Jeffersonian democracy. You'd better be aware of that.' And they would kind of say, 'oh, we know,' and 'did they make the pledge?' meaning the Egyptians or the Jordanians or the Kuwaitis.
And they were satisfied with that. And now, when it's leaked to the press, they're nowhere to be found," said Mr. Scheuer, who started and ran the agency's rendition program for al-Qaida suspects in the mid-to-late 1990s. The author of two books on al-Qaida and the CIA.The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report cites Egypt, Kuwait, and Jordan as among those countries that allegedly mistreat or torture prisoners. Mr. Scheuer says the nasty reputations for torture some of those countries have are overblown.
And, he adds, despite the problems, rendition works. "I think that on the whole the detainee program run by the Central Intelligence Agency has been a tremendous success in terms of lessening the threat to some degree, but more especially in terms of understanding and promoting future operations," he said.