Although members of Congress support the war against terrorism, there is increasing criticism of a policy known as extraordinary rendition in which individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism have been sent to other countries, often for interrogation sometimes facing torture there. Some lawmakers support legislation to ban the practice, which President Bush believes is an important tool of the battle against terrorism.
In his news conference Wednesday at the White House, President Bush was asked by a reporter about the practice of extraordinary rendition.
"The post-9/11 world, the United States must make sure we protect our people and our friends from attack,” said Mr. Bush. “That was the charge we have been given. And one way to do so is to arrest people and send them back to their country of origin with the promise that they won't be tortured. That's the promise we receive. This country does not believe in torture. We do believe in protecting ourselves. We don't believe in torture."
The president's response came amid increasing questions from members of Congress, and criticism by human rights and civil liberties groups.
Alexandra Arriaga is Governmental Affairs Director of Amnesty International.
"There is mounting evidence of a wide-ranging U.S. program to transfer detainees to countries outside the rule of law through extraordinary rendition, that place individuals in direct threat of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," she said.
The practice of rendition was approved, but thought to have been little used under former President Bill Clinton. It was modified and strengthened by President Bush to allow the CIA to transport detainees without case-by-case review.
Since the September 2001 al-Qaida attacks in the United States, detainees have been transferred from U.S. custody to other countries, including, according to various reports: Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.
President Bush's defense of rendition coincided with a victory on Capitol Hill by lawmakers opposing extraordinary rendition.
In approving legislation funding U.S. military needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the House of Representatives adopted by near unanimous vote, an amendment prohibiting the money from being used in a way that would contravene the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer was one of the sponsors of the amendment.
"We have called for this Congress to get on top of what is I am afraid an emerging scandal, where we use extraordinary rendition, where we kidnap and transport people, where there isn't effective oversight, where Congress does not know what is going on, where there are people who are not being held accountable," said Mr. Blumenauer.
One case that has received the most media attention was that of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who U.S. officials intercepted at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. He was flown to Syria, held for 10 months, and says he was tortured, before being released without being charged.
This week, lawyers suing the U.S. government on his behalf filed a formal legal opposition to Bush administration efforts to block their case.
In a recent news conference on Capitol Hill, Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights, criticizes what he calls the Bush administration's outrageous use of executive privilege to have the case dismissed.
"The government has repeatedly attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed, most recently claiming that evidence in Mr. Arar's case should be considered state secrets and that the case should be dismissed because allowing Mr. Arar his day in court would jeopardize the security of this country," he noted.
Congressman Ed Markey is chief sponsor of separate legislation seeking to end direct or indirect use of the rendition technique by the United States.
"We are here today to ask Congress to take up this legislation, and bring an end to this shameful practice and to send a message to the Bush administration to ground the torture plane that is flying around the world to pick up detainees and transport them to some of the world's most notorious human rights abusers," said Mr. Markey.
Among other things, the bill would require the United States to obtain an assurance from a foreign government that they will not torture a specific person transferred to their custody.
It would also prohibit rendition to any country on a list the State Department would be required to compile of countries that commonly practice.
Human rights organizations supporting the bill say diplomatic assurances obtained from countries to which detainees are sent are mostly meaningless.
"Assurances have been used not to satisfy U.S. legal obligations but rather to circumvent them. They are unenforceable promises from governments that routinely flout their most basis human rights violations by engaging in systematic torture," said Wendy Patten, U.S. Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch.
Margaret Satterthwaite, Research Director for New York University's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, says the Markey bill would accomplish two important things.
"Reinforce prohibitions on rendition that are already binding on the United States under international law by unequivocally requiring transfers of individuals to other countries occur with due process guarantees and in conformity with our international obligations,” she said. “The bill would clarify that extraordinary renditions are plainly prohibited no matter where they take place and no matter whether they are conducted by a government agency or by a contractor of such an agency."
To become law, Congressman Markey's legislation would have to be approved by both the House and the Senate and be signed by President Bush. It is expected congressional committees will examine the rendition issue this year.