There's a new story about rendition in the Washington Post. Specifically, it's about cases in which we kidnapped people, held them incommunicado, and in some cases transferred them to the intelligence services to be tortured, because we thought they were terrorists -- but oops! we were wrong:
"The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions," according to several former and current intelligence officials. One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.
"They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said."
I had always thought that the possible consequences of giving someone a bad grade didn't go beyond minor unpleasantness*. Apparently, I need to think again.
Here's how it happened:
"After the September 2001 attacks, pressure to locate and nab potential terrorists, even in the most obscure parts of the world, bore down hard on one CIA office in particular, the Counterterrorist Center, or CTC, located until recently in the basement of one of the older buildings on the agency's sprawling headquarters compound. With operations officers and analysts sitting side by side, the idea was to act on tips and leads with dramatic speed.
The possibility of missing another attack loomed large. "Their logic was: If one of them gets loose and someone dies, we'll be held responsible," said one CIA officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, would speak only anonymously because of the secretive nature of the subject.
To carry out its mission, the CTC relies on its Rendition Group, made up of case officers, paramilitaries, analysts and psychologists. Their job is to figure out how to snatch someone off a city street, or a remote hillside, or a secluded corner of an airport where local authorities wait.
Members of the Rendition Group follow a simple but standard procedure: Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip. Their destinations: either a detention facility operated by cooperative countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, or one of the CIA's own covert prisons -- referred to in classified documents as "black sites," which at various times have been operated in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe.
In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CTC was the place to be for CIA officers wanting in on the fight. The staff ballooned from 300 to 1,200 nearly overnight.
"It was the Camelot of counterterrorism," a former counterterrorism official said. "We didn't have to mess with others -- and it was fun."
Thousands of tips and allegations about potential threats poured in after the attacks. Stung by the failure to detect the plot, CIA officers passed along every tidbit. The process of vetting and evaluating information suffered greatly, former and current intelligence officials said. "Whatever quality control mechanisms were in play on September 10th were eliminated on September 11th," a former senior intelligence official said."
Because, after all, who needs quality control when you're kidnapping people and sending them off to be tortured?
This is why we have a legal system: because even with the best intentions, government officials make mistakes. People who are kidnapped and sent off either to some secret CIA prison or to the tender mercies of, for instance, the Egyptian government, have no recourse at all.
Katherine and I have already written about the case of Khaled Masri, who was kidnapped in Macedonia and turned over to the CIA, who decided not to wait for confirmation that, say, his passport was forged. (Form the WaPo article: ""The Skopje station really wanted a scalp because everyone wanted a part of the game," a CIA officer said.") He was held for months before the CIA decided it had made a mistake. Here's what eventually happened:
"On the day of his release, the prison's director, who Masri believed was an American, told Masri that he had been held because he "had a suspicious name," Masri said in an interview.
Several intelligence and diplomatic officials said Macedonia did not want the CIA to bring Masri back inside the country, so the agency arranged for him to be flown to Albania. Masri said he was taken to a narrow country road at dusk. When they let him off, "They asked me not to look back when I started walking," Masri said. "I was afraid they would shoot me in the back." He said he was quickly met by three armed men. They drove all night, arriving in the morning at Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana. Masri said he was escorted onto the plane, past all the security checkpoints, by an Albanian.
Masri has been reunited with his children and wife, who had moved the family to Lebanon because she did not know where her husband was. Unemployed and lonely, Masri says neither his German nor Arab friends dare associate with him because of the publicity.
Meanwhile, a German prosecutor continues to work Masri's case. A Macedonia bus driver has confirmed that Masri was taken away by border guards on the date he gave investigators. A forensic analysis of Masri's hair showed he was malnourished during the period he says he was in the prison. Flight logs show a plane registered to a CIA front company flew out of Macedonia on the day Masri says he went to Afghanistan.
Masri can find few words to explain his ordeal. "I have very bad feelings" about the United States, he said. "I think it's just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws.""
As well he should. We did not have to use extraordinary rendition on Khaled Masri. We could have indicted him and tried him in a court of law. If we meant what we said about being a nation of laws, not of men, that's exactly what we would have done. Instead, we kidnap people and send them off to be tortured. And, inevitably, we make mistakes. The three dozen or so people we have rendered 'by mistake' have already paid an enormous price for our errors. It remains to be seen whether any of those who are responsible for making those mistakes, or who signed off on a policy that virtually insured that innocent people would be kidnapped and tortured, will pay any price for what they did. We claim to be a nation of laws. If we are, we will hold people accountable for this.
* The worst I've encountered was the response of one student who, having plagiarized the rough draft of his paper and thus gotten it back with no comment beyond "I'm not turning you in because this is a draft, but if you so much as think about doing this on the final paper, I will", filed a grievance against me on the grounds that I had unfairly given extensive comments on everyone's draft but his, and that that explained his bad grade. After the incredulous Dean dismissed his grievance (I had kept a copy of the plagiarized draft with my comments), he then posted an essay about what he called my Nazi tendencies on his website, which he left up for the better part of a decade. This I can deal with. Extraordinary rendition, no.