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Debating Rendition Tactics

December 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: It was on this street in Milan, Italy that CIA agents reportedly abducted an Egyptian terror suspect in February 2003. Italian authorities said the suspect known as Abu Omar was taken to the U.S. air base at Aviano, Italy and flown to Egypt. He claims he was tortured there.

The CIA hasn’t publicly acknowledged snatching Abu Omar but it’s been widely reported that the agency has conducted some 100 to 150 of these abductions, officially called renditions. They involve abducting and transferring terror suspects, usually to third countries, without a trial.

Several European governments and the EU have protested these renditions if they involve European nationals or are facilitated through U.S. bases on European soil. Today before leaving for Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued the administration’s first vigorous public defense of the tactic.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: One of the difficult issues in this new kind of conflict is what to do with captured individuals who we know or believe to be terrorists. The individuals come from many countries and are often captured far from their original homes. Among them are those who are effectively stateless, owing allegiance only to the extremist cause of transnational terrorism. Many are extremely dangerous and some have information that may save lives, perhaps even thousands of lives.

The captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice, which were designed for different needs. We have to adapt. Other governments are now also facing this challenge. We consider the captured members of al-Qaida and its affiliates to be unlawful combatants who may be held in accordance with the law of war to keep them from killing innocents.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Rice said previous administrations and foreign governments have also used renditions to immobilize major terrorists.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: For decades, the United States and other countries have used renditions to transport terrorist suspects from the country where they were captured to their home country or to other countries where they can be questioned, held or brought to justice.

MARGARET WARNER: Among them Ramsey Yousef snatched in Manila and brought to the U.S., where he revealed a plot to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific; he was convicted for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

Another case cited by Rice, terrorist “Carlos the Jackal;” French government snatched him in Khartoum in 1994. He was tried and imprisoned in France.

More recent news accounts have reported CIA renditions of suspects to third countries like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan that are suspected of torturing prisoners. Rice today insisted the U.S. does not transport suspects to countries where they are in danger of being tortured and seeks assurances that they won’t be.

Nonetheless, this issue and the separate one of reported secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe is expected to come up during her five-day European tour.

So are renditions necessary and effective in fighting terrorism? To explore that, we turn to two former intelligence officials. John Brennan was director of the CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center until his retirement this fall from 25 years at the agency. He’s now head of the Analysis Corporation, a security consulting firm. And Reuel Gerecht focused on the Middle East during a decade as a CIA operations officer. He left in the mid-90s. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome, gentlemen. Welcome to you both. Before we get into debating how useful or effective this practice is, you’re both intelligence professional. Tell us, Mr. Brennan, when did this practice start in earnest and why?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, it’s been in practice for the past several decades. And I think over the past decade it has picked up some speed because of the nature of the terrorist threat right now but essentially it’s a practice the United States and other countries have used to transport suspected terrorists from a country, usually where they’re captured to another country, either their country of origin or a country where they can be questioned, detained or brought to justice.

MARGARET WARNER: And the assumption is that they cannot be questioned or detained in the country where they’re captured?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, sometimes that is the case because there could be an outstanding warrant for someone’s arrest in another country or they need to go back to the country of their origin because the local government and service can in fact question them more effectively in that country than in the place where they had been captured.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that in terms of when and why this practice really got underway in earnest at the agency?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think it was built upon the close relationships the agency built particularly with Egypt and Jordan in the mid 1980s. I mean, counterterrorism bureaucratically takes off at Langley around 1984-1985. And you have relationships develop.

I think the pivotal moment might be 1995-1996. I mean that’s what you usually hear from people who work at Langley, that that’s when a rendition came into the form more or less that you know it today.

MARGARET WARNER: And because?

REUEL GERECHT: Because of the growth of terrorism, because of the concerns about Islamic extremism arise, of what later became bin Ladenism. I think it became a growing concern, and I think they thought at that time and still do that you needed foreign assistance in the fight against it.

MARGARET WARNER: So was Secretary Rice correct today when she called it a vital tool in combating terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. 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.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it — are you saying both in two ways — both in getting terrorists off the streets and also in the interrogation?

JOHN BRENNAN: Yes. The rendition is the practice or the process of rendering somebody from one place to another place. It is moving them and the U.S. Government will frequently facilitate that movement from one country to another.

MARGARET WARNER: Effective?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think I would have to trust those in the government who say that it is. I would question, however, the utility of it. I would suggest that if you’re going to render someone to a foreign country to be interrogated, it would be far better off if the United States retained control of that terror suspect and did the interrogations itself.

A number one rule in the intelligence business is not to lose control of your asset, not to lose control of the individual you want to interrogate. By definition if you are giving someone over to the Egyptians or Jordanians or Pakistanis, you are losing control. You no longer control that environment. The intelligence is much more easily compromised.

MARGARET WARNER: How about that point?

JOHN BRENNAN: Quite frankly I think it’s rather arrogant to think that we are the best in every case in terms of eliciting information from terror suspects. So other countries and other services have a long experience in dealing with this challenge because they are confronting terrorism on a day-to-day basis.

So, again, the U.S. Government looks at this in terms of the case-specific requirements. Is it in the best interest of the United States Government to retain control or, in fact, should they be handed over to a country that in fact might be more effective or have, in fact, a greater legal and judicial case against those individuals?

REUEL GERECHT: If Hosni Mubarak or King Abdullah or King Hussein or Musharraf of Pakistan would be thrilled to lend the United States whatever assistance it would need in those debriefings.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean in other words, have the CIA retain control –

REUEL GERECHT: Sure and maintain — it increases the closer secret relationship between those governments and the United States. It fortifies their position in Washington. So again I don’t think that’s a terribly serious position.

Now, whether these countries have stronger judicial cases I’m not sure when you think of Egypt or you think of Jordan or you think of Pakistan that first and foremost you’re thinking about judicial proceedings they may have against these individuals.

I think we need to be honest here and say that one of the reasons we’re sending them there is because they tend to be a little bit rougher in their interrogations and we are not objecting to that.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point, Mr. Brennan? I mean, why would you not, if this — if you have a suspect who is a danger to the United States, keep him in United States’ custody? Is it because we want another country to do the dirty work?

JOHN BRENNAN: No, I don’t think that’s it at all. Also I think it’s rather arrogant to think we’re the only country that respects human rights. I think that we have a lot of assurances from these countries that we hand over terrorists to that they will, in fact, respect human rights.

And there are different ways to gain those assurances. But also let’s say an individual goes to Egypt because they’re an Egyptian citizen and the Egyptians then have a longer history in terms of dealing with them, and they have family members and others that they can bring in, in fact, to be part of the whole interrogation process.

MARGARET WARNER: But what about Mr. Gerecht’s point that the CIA could bring them in to help?

JOHN BRENNAN: Well, you can be transporting people all over the world, bringing family members and professional colleagues and others.

Again, it has to be looked at in the instance — the case-specific requirements, and a lot of times it makes more sense to have that person in a country where the local service, the intelligence and security service can in fact have a long process that’s going to be able to elicit that information.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there from what — and I know you’ve been out of the agency for almost a dozen years now or close. But is there a kind of line certain people, certain suspects are kept within CIA custody from which you understand and others aren’t? And where would you –

REUEL GERECHT: Sure, it does appear that those individuals that you might call the primary category like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are rendered unto us. We actually do want to have control of those that are “the” most valuable.

The type of rendition we’re talking about here, which I think the administration usually uses the term “extraordinary rendition,” which means we give an individual to a third party, those seem to be more what you might call secondary or tertiary. They’re not on the very top of the totem pole.

Again I would just have to say, you know, we’re not talking about rendering people to Sweden, Norway or Denmark where they do respect, quote, human rights.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying despite the assurances you think they are tortured or they are abused?

REUEL GERECHT: I think it has to be a reasonable assumption that if you were rendering someone to Egypt or to Jordan or to Pakistan, countries not known for following the Marquis of Queensbury rules in interrogation, that the tactics that are going to be used are — how do I want to put this politely — rough.

JOHN BRENNAN: There are different ways to gain those assurances. You can have periodic observations, periodic visits. There are ways you can make sure in monitoring in fact how that local service is handling the individual. So it’s not as though we just turn over somebody and then forget about them.

No, the United States Government follows up very thoroughly as far as what is happening, what information are we getting from them.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, why if as Secretary Rice said today and we didn’t run obviously all her remarks, if the Europeans themselves have engaged in this practice, why are the Europeans now, some of them, exercised about it?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, because I think it’s just a very good anti-American leverage tool. It’s a way also of punishing the Eastern Europeans who supported us in the Iraq war.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re saying that because even though it’s a separate issue it’s in Eastern Europe that, what, air bases are used or that some of these secret, so-called secret prisons –

REUEL GERECHT: What we’ve heard is that they are in Eastern Europe. And certainly it would not be at all surprising to find the French or the Germans who quite staunchly opposed the United States in the Iraq war to use this as a means of continuing that battle.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying the two issues have become conflated maybe on purpose.

REUEL GERECHT: Yes, I think that’s fair to say.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think the Europeans are exercised?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think all politics are local and there are a lot of elements in Europe that are opposed to the different practices and policies of their government services so I think what it is, is the people are seeing is that there are internal politics that are playing out.

MARGARET WARNER: So if European governments — and Condoleezza Rice is obviously going to have these discussions — were to say, we don’t want you to anymore practice rendition or whatever the verb is, render sounds like something you do in a meat factory — but in any event, practice rendition on a European national, snatch someone from European soil, use an American installation or one of our air bases in Europe or a European air base or even overfly Europe to do this, how much of a crimp would that put in the entire program?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think that their discussion on these issues is very important, and the United States Government along the European governments, as well as other governments, need to understand what the rules that we’ll all play by.

So I don’t see it’s going to crimp our ability to do these things. I think we have to make sure that we understand what the different guidelines will be and the rules that we will all follow.

REUEL GERECHT: I agree with that. I think the administration now is taking the right approach and being quite adult on this and sort of challenging our European critics on this issue because certainly if you cannot transfer individuals over European air space then essentially the Europeans have taken themselves out on the war on terror and aligned them selves against us.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you, gentlemen.

JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you.