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 GuantÃƒ¡namo 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.