Obama preserves rendition two days after taking office
Jeremy Gantz
Published: Sunday February 1, 2009

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Update at bottom: Did LA Times get 'punked'? Liberals push back against LA Times story

Two days after taking the helm of a country ready for change after eight years of George W. Bush, President Obama has allowed one controversial "War on Terror" tactic to remain in place: rendition.

Despite frequent condemnation of the practice around the world, rendition -- the secret capture, transportation and detention of suspected terrorists to foreign prisons in countries that cooperate with the U.S. -- remains in the CIA's playbook, thanks to a Jan. 22 executive order issued by President Obama.

Other executive orders shuttered the CIA's secret prisons and banned the harsh interrogation techniques that have been termed torture. And in his most widely noticed break with his predecessor, Obama signed an order to close Guantanamo Bay's prison within one year.

But rendition will remain. Obama and his administration appear to believe that the rendition program was one piece of the Bush administration's war on terrorism that it could not afford to discard, the Los Angeles Times reported.

An administration official told the newspaper anonymously: "Obviously you need to preserve some tools -- you still have to go after the bad guys. The legal advisors working on this looked at rendition. It is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice."

The momentous decision by Obama and his young administration appeared in a small provision of one executive order, which states that instructions to close the CIA's secret prison sites "do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis."

Under that language, the Soviet-era black site used by the CIA between 2002 and 2004 and revealed by Raw Story in 2007 would remain open. Intelligence officials signaled the facility would no longer be used after it received broad public attention in the Polish press.

In late 2007, the U.S. House voted to effectively end CIA renditions. But that prohibition, part of a $50 billion Iraq funding bill, was never passed in the Senate. Also in 2007, Congress apologized for the wrongful detainment of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was "rendered" to Syria, where he was tortured into making a false confession.

Obama's decision to continue rendition on an apparently limited basis revives questions about the tactic's effectiveness -- not to mention legality.

"The reason we did interrogations [ourselves] is because renditions for the most part weren't very productive," a former senior CIA official told the Los Angeles Times anonymously.

But surprisingly, Human Rights Watch -- the worldwide watchdog group that vehemently opposed Bush-era secret detentions facilities and torture tactics -- supports Obama's decision to continue the practice of rendition.

"Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for renditions, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told the Los Angeles Times. "What I heard loud and clear from the president's order was that they want to design a system that doesn't result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured..."

But the former CIA official wasn't quite so optimistic.

"In some ways, [rendition] is the worst option," the former official said. "If [the prisoners] are in U.S. hands, you have a lot of checks and balances, medics and lawyers. Once you turn them over to another service, you lose control."

Liberals push back against LA Times story

Many liberal online journalists and bloggers are pushing back against the LA Times story, saying that the paper "got rolled" and/or "punked."

At his blog at The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes about the "rendition canard."

"For some reason, many people on the right and a few within the CIA feel the need to minimize the difference between Obama and Bush on the terror war," Sullivan writes. "And so we are greeted with whoops and hollers because the Obama administration will return to the rendition policies of the GWH Bush and Clinton administrations."

However, Sullivan, Washington Monthly's Hilzoy, Harper's Scott Horton, and Cernig at Newshoggers all beg to differ with the LA Times take on Obama's 'endorsement' of rendition.

"It is not the practice of 'extraordinary rendition' that the Bush-Cheney administration pioneered to supplement its own torture program," Sullivan writes. "It is the practice of capturing terror suspects and rendering them to non-torturing foreign governments for detention, interrogation or prosecution."

Sullivan charges, "The LA Times got rolled by the usual suspects, who seem not to understand how the program changed under Bush-Cheney."

At Washington Monthly, Hilzoy argues that "in addition to announcing that the administration will obey the Convention Against Torture, the administration will also study not whether to send detainees off to be tortured, but how to ensure that our policies are not intended to result in their torture, and will not result in their torture. This seems to me like a very clear renunciation of the policy of sending people to third countries to be tortured."

"The Los Angeles Times just got punked," Scott Horton writes.

Horton adds, "In the course of the last week we’ve seen a steady stream of efforts designed to show that Obama is continuing the counterterrorism programs that he previously labeled as abusive and promised to shut down. These stories are regularly sourced to unnamed current or former CIA officials and have largely run in right-wing media outlets. However, now we see that even the Los Angeles Times can be taken for a ride."

Related articles: Soviet-era compound in northern Poland was site of secret CIA interrogation, detentions.