Human Rights, Rendered Meaningless

The more we learn of the Bush administration's pervasive outsourcing of torture, the more sensible it seems as a policy. Evidently, our intelligence people, tainted as they are by the squeamish morality of Western civilization, are just not fully up to the task of getting prisoners to tell us what the administration wants us to hear.

Sure, they tried water boarding and extreme stress positions in Guantanamo, but would U.S. interrogators be willing to pull out fingernails or use electric shock, as was inflicted upon at least a dozen of the 625 Baghdad inmates released Sunday from yet another secret inhuman jail run by our Iraqi surrogates? Not guaranteed, and anyway, some conscious-stricken soldier likely would release photos, as one did at Abu Ghraib, and let the world in on our use of such special methods.

Better to use the services of those less democratic nations where torture is the norm, including some, such as Uzbekistan, that still have usable camps left over from Soviet-era torturers. That must be behind the logic of "extraordinary rendition," as it officially is called, in which it is acknowledged U.S. policy to turn over prisoners our government has captured to other nations deemed more effective in interrogation.

Nor can the deficiency of our own personnel be simply a lack of language skills, religious familiarity or cultural affinity between interrogator and subject, as apologists for the administration's policy have suggested. Over the last decades, many billions of dollars have been spent in supplying our intelligence agents with precisely that sort of expertise.

What clearly is missing is the will to go all the way in "breaking down" prisoners. There are just too many decent people scattered throughout our military and intelligence forces who would object publicly to such barbarism. They, and the American public when informed, would insist on limits, even when the president doesn't.

That must be why the CIA failed in its interrogation of an alleged high-ranking al Qaeda official back in January 2002 to prove the connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Hey, no biggie, they just turned the captive, a Libyan named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, over to Egypt's inquisitors who miraculously transformed him into a virtual spokesman for the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq.

Virtual, because he was shipped back to disappear in the Guantanamo Gulag, but his false witness was trumpeted by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and the president, who stated on the eve of the congressional vote that authorized the Iraq invasion: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gases.'' What Bush did not say was that eight months earlier, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the top coordinating agency in such matters, concluded that al-Libi's testimony was totally bogus.

So, one must not jump to the conclusion correctly claimed by most experts on the subject that torture doesn't work just because it yields mostly false results from prisoners who want the torture to stop. In the case of al-Libi, torture worked splendidly to produce exactly the critical false evidence that the president needed to make his case for war.

The beauty of the rendition program is that the administration can still claim to be against torture because the host nation torturers gave us assurance that they abhor the practice. That is a devilishly clever posture, because there isn't a country in the world that admits to practicing torture. But it is one that offered no protection to Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who as CBS reported, was repeatedly tortured after being "rendered" to Syria, before being released without ever being charged with a crime. That should not come as a surprise to the State Department, whose annual Human Rights Report lists Syria high on its torture-nation roster. But yet the president insists, and the facts be damned, that "we do not render to countries that torture."

If so, why continue to block the "Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act" written by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., which would forbid such "renditions" to nations known to practice torture? Because, as Markey put it, "In order to meet its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, this administration has been engaging in a piece of legalistic fiction. It asks the torturing country for 'diplomatic assurances' that the transferred detainee will not be tortured on the theory that a torturing country will keep its word."

The legal loophole for torture is too good a tool to give up, not as a means of catching the bad guys, but rather as needed cover in possible litigation against the self-proclaimed good guys gone wild.

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