Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Extraordinary rendition

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, makes some very good points on this topic. The whole column is well worth reading. Here's the way he starts:

Torture is immoral and illegal, and the refusal to allow it is one measure of a civilized society. But this ironclad moral argument doesn't necessarily apply to the practice known as "extraordinary rendition."

Rendition is the CIA's antiseptic term for its practice of sending captured terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation. Because some of those countries torture prisoners — and because some of the suspected terrorists "rendered" by the CIA say they were, in fact, tortured — the debate has tended to lump rendition and torture together. The implication is that the CIA is sending people to Egypt, Jordan or other Middle Eastern countries because they can be tortured there and coerced into providing information they wouldn't give up otherwise.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes the CIA believes that torture works. But in 30 years of writing about intelligence, I've never encountered a spook who didn't realize that torture is usually counterproductive. Professional intelligence officers know that prisoners will confess to anything under intense pain. Information obtained through torture thus tends to be unreliable, in addition to being immoral.

But in conversations over the past several years with senior CIA officials and the heads of several Arab intelligence services, I've heard explanations for why the practice is used. These arguments for rendition at least ought to be understood, as Congress and the public struggle with the moral issues involved.

What's gained by transferring a prisoner to his home country for interrogation is emotional leverage, according to Arab and American intelligence chiefs. A hardened al Qaeda member often can't be coerced physically into giving up information, no matter how nasty the interrogator. But he may do so if confronted by, say, his mother, father, brother or sister.

In other words, torture doesn't work, the CIA knows it, but they also know that just placing the suspect in his home country can be an effective interrogation tool. That's completely plausible to me. I have no doubt that I'd be much more likely to spill the beans if I were in a prison here, with my wife begging me to talk, than I would if I was in (say) a North Korean prison. Mr. Ignatius concludes with this point:

Before you make an easy judgment about rendition, you have to answer the disturbing question put to me by a former CIA official: Suppose the FBI had captured Mohamed Atta before Sept. 11, 2001. Under U.S. legal rules at the time, the man who plotted the airplane suicide attacks probably could not have been held or interrogated in the United States. Would it have made sense to "render" Atta to a place where he could have been interrogated in a way that might have prevented Sept. 11? That's not a simple question for me to answer, even as I share the conviction that torture is always and everywhere wrong.

An excellent point, Mr. Ignatius.

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