Why the caged bird sings

By - Jan 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Cole J. White

If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have thought that “Extraordinary Rendition” was something that Barbra Streisand did at her shows; but the reality is decidedly more grim than a chorus line performance of Yentl. Extraordinary Rendition is, in fact, the name for our governments’ extrajudicial practice of kidnapping, detaining and utilizing third-party nations to torture individuals with “suspected terrorist links,” a practice that is destroying our nation’s moral credibility and eroding the foundations of our Constitution.

Even with that, the American people, still gripped with fear and manipulated by the Bush Administration, might remain sympathetic to the program – if only it was successful. The truth is, not a single indictment, let alone conviction, has come from the rendition process. In fact, almost all of the people who have been “interrogated” are completely innocent.

But pesky as the issue of innocence is, the case against Extraordinary Rendition really comes from the growing body of evidence that suggests it is, simply, an unreliable means of getting accurate information. According to a July 2006 report from the CIA Counterterrorism Taskforce (which was disbanded shortly after the release of the report), “The Program [Extraordinary Rendition] is producing, more times than not, false testimony and erroneous leads.” It also, according to the report, “is draining critical resources from finding and capturing actual terrorists” and concludes that, “it is unlikely that any fruitful evidence will come from maintaining the current course of action.”

However, despite the growing concerns from members of our own intelligence and military leadership, as well as outrage from the international community, President Bush has defended the program on multiple occasions, calling it, “a vital and necessary tool in the war on terror.” He even minimized abuse allegations by describing the treatment of prisoners with the disingenuously benign euphemism “proactive intelligence collection.”

The existence of the program is not what has human rights groups and the international community so upset. ‘Rendition’ was around long before Bush. It is the way that the program has morphed into an unfettered application, with unprecedented targeting of civilians and outsourcing of torture – all of which are wholly new and born of the current Administration. Even Tony Blair, one of the Administrations’ closest allies, has said, “Torture cannot be justified in any set of circumstances at all,” adding, “This [British] government is completely and totally opposed to torture or ill-treatment in any set of circumstances.”

To be fair, official U.S. policy also forbids the use of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ – including the torture – of prisoners. To avoid these restrictions of domestic and international law, the current Administration has taken to farming out its dirty work, forging partnerships with nations with, at the least, “questionable” human rights records. Through alliances with Uzbekistan, Syria, Libya, Jordan and Egypt (to name a few), the Administration hopes to keep a comfortable distance between itself and the outrageous abuses that are occurring.

With such alliances in place, Extraordinary Rendition has created a veritable blue-light special on torture, where the decision to use one country over another becomes a matter of desired ends rather than practical means. According to former CIA agent Robert Baer, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”

In Jane Mayer’s acclaimed article for The New Yorker, she chronicles the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen and engineer. Arar was abducted in 2002 by U.S. officials while on vacation with his family in New York City. He was taken first to Jordan and then to Syria, where he was held for over a year. During that time, Arar was subject to severe beatings, sleep-deprivation, starvation and isolation. In his words, “It was worse than how you would treat an animal.” Each day, his captors would tell him that his freedom, and indeed his life, depended on providing information. As time went on and his beatings became increasingly brutal, Arar cracked, admitting to everything of which he was accused. Believing that his only hope of release was to provide information to the United States, Arar fabricated names, dates and other information just to secure a moment’s peace. Despite his cooperation, Arar was kept captive until pressure was brought to bear by the Canadian government. At a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars and over a year of a man’s life, the U.S. intelligence community had nothing to show.

The most troubling thing about Maher Arar’s story is that it is not unique. Arar’s is just one of some 300 cases in the past few years, cases that hopefully will cast a very bright light on a very dark corner of American foreign policy.

There is a delicate balancing act between security and civil rights. Today, that balance has been thrown terribly askew as more and more people simply disappear – for weeks, months, years and sometimes forever. Our willingness as a nation to allow such egregious abuses to continue throws into stark relief the nation we were and the nation we are becoming. And while the problem seems, often times, too great to overcome, I cannot help but think of a quote by artist Frank Kent, “The evils of government a re directly proportional to the tolerance of the people.” The real question is not whether the government will end Extraordinary Rendition, but rather whether we have the courage to stop the government. VS

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