In Defense of Rendition

I learned yesterday from former colleague Christina Davidson that Imperial Hubris author Michael Scheuer had an op-ed in yesterday’s NYT defending the practice of sending terrorist suspects overseas for possible torture. He points out that the policy was spearheaded during the Clinton Administration by “National Security Director Samuel Berger and his counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke” who lauded its successes.

I know this because, as head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden desk, I started the Qaeda detainee/rendition program and ran it for 40 months. And in my 22 years at the agency I never a saw a set of operations that was more closely scrutinized by the director of central intelligence, the National Security Council and the Congressional intelligence committees. Nor did I ever see one that was more blessed (plagued?) by the expert guidance of lawyers.

For now, the beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge that the non-C.I.A. staff members mentioned above knew that taking detainees to Egypt or elsewhere might yield treatment not consonant with United States legal practice. How did they know? Well, several senior C.I.A. officers, myself included, were confident that common sense would elude that bunch, and so we told them – again and again and again. Each time a decision to do a rendition was made, we reminded the lawyers and policy makers that Egypt was Egypt, and that Jimmy Stewart never starred in a movie called “Mr. Smith Goes to Cairo.” They usually listened, nodded, and then inserted a legal nicety by insisting that each country to which the agency delivered a detainee would have to pledge it would treat him according to the rules of its own legal system.

So as the hounding of C.I.A. and the calls for its officers’ blood continue, a few things must be made clear – all the more so if the government is really considering the renditions of many detainees now held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. First, the agency is peculiarly an instrument of the executive branch. Renditions were called for, authorized and legally vetted not just by the N.S.C. and the Justice Department, but also by the presidents – both Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush. In my mind, these men and women made the right decision – America is better protected because of renditions – but it would have been better if they had not lacked the bureaucratic and moral courage to work with Congress to find ways to bring all detainees to America.

Second, the rendition program has been a tremendous success. Dozens of senior Qaeda fighters are today behind bars, no longer able to plot or participate in attacks. Detainee operations also netted an untold number of computers and documents that increased our knowledge of Al Qaeda’s makeup and plans.

I agree with Scheuer that, if we’re going to do this, we should have the moral courage to do it openly and within the scope of the checks and balances of our political process. While it contradicts my general impression of the effectiveness of torture in gaining useful intelligence, I’ll defer to his far superior expertise that the program has in fact been immensely helpful.

For reasons I can’t fully explain, though, I remain quite leery of the practice. This is odd, since I have no qualms about killing terrorists by the bushel. Still, torture seems so uncivilized and contrary to the American ideal. If Scheuer is correct, though, the price of such queamishness may be high, indeed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Clint Lovell says:

    We need to put an end to things like this because they work and that event would reflect badly on the Democratic Party.

    The Democrats would prefer we unleash the power of Joan Baez on them and see if that makes them talk.

    I also heard the Democrats would be pushing a new program to deprive terrorist prisoners of their evening meal dessert if they didn’t start talking.

    Then again, in a related development, I have been told by an unimpeachable source that the Democrats would like to offer bin Laden the DNC Party Chairmanship but since they can’t find them either they had to settle for his deputy.

  2. ken says:

    I believe that with the Clinton administration the policy was to use extraodianary rendition only in those cases where a terrorist suspect was already wanted by another country. In other words while the Clinton administration may have been responsible for arresting the suspects they allowed another country the priviledge of prosecuting them.

    Bush on the other hand is just sending completely innocent people overseas for the express purpose of having them tortured for information. They don’t even pretend a pretext of legality.

    If you cannot see the difference you are blind.

  3. Clint Lovell says:

    I can see that rendition is rendition and your comments on the matter reflect a subjective judgment that you have as to what is “right” and what is “wrong” with this program.

    There are some complicating factors.

    We are at war with a group of people who would cheerfully cut your throat without a moment’s thought to how you might feel about it.

    Our only choice for survival means that we must (unfortunately) kill enough of them that the remainder come to the conclusion that they need to go about this in a different (non-violent) manner.

    In World War II we had to kill millions of Japanese so we could save the remainder and save millions of additional American casualties.

    The same holds true here. It’s sad, but these are the realities we live with.

    To ignore these realities and exercize sophistry is a sure way to ensure that 9/11 happens again on a scale so unimaginably horrible that even people such as yourself demand that we kill ALL of them.

    Nay – stay your wrath for this program. It is what it is and produces what it produces. When it no longer serves our needs for the situation we find ourselves in then the program will no longer be utilized.

  4. ken says:

    Clint, we have, in America, a constitution for the express purpose of protecting us against people like you.

  5. McGehee says:

    Notice that Ken is more concerned with being protected against Clint than against Osama bin Laden.

  6. ken says:

    Yes McGehee, the enemy within is far more dangerous to Americans than is the enemy without.

  7. Clint Lovell says:

    The Constitution means nothing if there are no people left to live by it. That document is not a death pact for those who have eyes to see that when you deal with people who are committed to the most undemocratic process of all (genocide) that the rules go out the window until we get rid of them, lest those rules result in our own demise.

    That is the fundamental difference between us. I have fought for my country, as have both my brothers. One of my kids was in Bosnia during Clinton’s “occupation”. One of my kids just got back from Fallujah after a tour with the 3rd Marines.

    One of the things we have in common is that we have been willing to lay it all on the line so we could come home to people who would gladly trade our sacrifices for the moral security of feeling “right” as if pronouncing that judgment makes everything else they won’t do (or say) somehow acceptable to the rest of society (that knows better), because they are cowards not worth saving and leeches who exist in the margins of humanity calling forth visions of a better world that will not exist as long as tyrants and terrorists do. Their whole approach to life makes my hair stand on end.

    No, the Constitution won’t protect you from people like me, but thank goodness there are people like me or you’d already be dead, gone, and forgotten instead of being able to enjoy the opportunity to deride those who will do what must be done so your sorry cowardly ass can sleep at night and get up the next day to generate a fresh wave of treacle.

  8. ken says:

    Clint, I would sleep a lot better at night if people like you were not threatening my country. I take this issue seriously and will not rest until people like you are dealt with.

  9. Collin Baber says:

    The effect of renditions on the Arab masses will be a solid message of American hypocrisy. We must take the moral high road and re-light the beacon of justice. Renditions, secret jails and torture do not help at all in winning the hearts and minds of those whom we are trying to dissuade from following the siren call of Mr. Bin Laden’s groupies.

  10. Anderson says:

    Hey, everyone, read Scheuer’s article, okay? Then come back.

    Back? Did you read it? Okay. Show me the part where he says we’ve gained ANY advantage by torturing people.

    The benefits of rendition are two, he says: getting terrorists behind bars, and obtaining physical evidence like computers and documents. I suppose we could get tips leading to the latter via torture, but S. doesn’t make the connection. Indeed, he downplays the whole torture thing (while indirectly ridiculing the notion that we thought it “more likely than not” that our prisoners wouldn’t be tortured, a crucial element in defending the legality of the renditions).

    So, justify torture to your heart(?)’s content, but don’t confuse it with what Scheuer wrote.