By Samuel Burke, CNN
President Obama came into office denouncing the Bush years of torturing alleged terrorists, also known as “enhanced interrogation.”
But it is unclear if Obama has repudiated another shadowy practice called “extraordinary rendition,” according to a comprehensive report published this week by the Open Society Justice Initiative.
It says the CIA has outsourced interrogation and detention to countries outside the reach of U.S. law. “Extraordinary rendition is the abduction of terrorist suspects off the streets,” the lead author of the report, Amrit Singh, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “There are secret flights to different countries, many of them known to employ torture. And they're being subjected to secret detention and possibly torture and other kinds of abuse.”
An administration official told CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, that the U.S. government does not comment on what are alleged to be activities of the intelligence community.
In January 2009, President Obama issued an executive order disavowing torture and established a Special Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies. Details of those findings have never been made public, but the administration official told Yellin that the U.S. government is implementing those recommendations.
“We don't know what the U.S. government's current policies are,” Singh said. “There have been reports of secret detention in Somalia that had some CIA involvement, but the details are still unknown.”
The author argues that the program was “flagrantly illegal,” violating both U.S. and international law, yet it continued throughout the Bush administration.
“This is not just a U.S. problem, it's a global problem,” Sing said, “The fact that so many men and women were tortured and secretly detained really cries out for some kind of redress, for some kind of acknowledgement, and that hasn't been forthcoming.”
A remarkable revelation of the report is that the program has had the cooperation of as many as 54 other governments, even, surprisingly, Syria and Iran.
One of the best-known cases of extraordinary rendition is that of Maher Arar, a Canadian national who was abducted from JFK Airport in New York City, Singh says. He was “rendered” to Syria, where he was held in a “tiny, grave-like cell” for days and beaten with cables, according to Singh.
“Maher Arar, incidentally, is a man who's received an apology and compensation from the government of Canada for its involvement in his case,” Singh told Amanpour. “But the U.S. has yet to even meaningfully acknowledge the abuse that it's responsible for in his case.”
It is unclear if Arar was ever a genuine suspect or if it was a case of mistaken identity, but a Canadian commission of inquiry later found that Canada had supplied U.S. intelligence with incorrect intelligence.
“But he's an innocent man,” Singh said. “And he was basically abducted and tortured and secretly detained and not given any explanation or apology from the United States.”
The United States government has barely acknowledged the program’s existence and, as such, has never held anyone accountable, leaving no possibility for redress or compensation for mistakes.
President Obama’s counterterrorism czar and nominee to head the C.I.A., John Brennan, had his original C.I.A. nomination, four years ago, derailed over the issue of torture.
Brenan was the C.I.A. deputy executive director under President George W. Bush. In 2005, he told the PBS NewsHour, “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.”
Because torture or “enhanced interrogation” was justified by a secret and controversial U.S. Justice Department memo, it is unclear why the U.S. would have so-called “black sites” in other countries.
“That gets to the heart of this issue,” Singh said. “Both secret CIA detention and extraordinary rendition were designed to be conducted overseas. They were designed to be outside the United States so as to evade judicial scrutiny, so as to evade public scrutiny. They were going to be done in secret, where no one would watch. And it's remarkable that the government still hasn't acknowledged the full scale and scope of this program.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee carried out a comprehensive report of some 6,000 pages on the issue, but it is unclear if it will ever be made public.
Singh says the program has even backfired on the United States, possibly making it subject to liability and censure across the world.
“Just last year,” she said, “the European Court of Human Rights held in the case of Khaled al-Masri, a German national, who was rendered from Macedonia to Afghanistan and tortured by the CIA. The court held that Macedonia had violated his rights by cooperating with the CIA in his rendition. And moreover, the court found that the CIA's treatment of this man amounted to torture. Now that is a serious problem for the U.S.”
It has also impacted intelligence sharing between some countries and the United States.
“The whole point about counterterrorism operations today is that the United States needs the cooperation of partners, across the world. And what this CIA detention program essentially did, it was that it co-opted governments into illegal activities and exposed them to liability, exposed them to censure, both in the courts and in public opinion.”
Now governments may think twice before they help the U.S. fight terrorism, Singh said, because of liability they could be subjected to.
CNN’s Ken Olshansky produced this piece for television.