More doublespeak on torture

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been making the rounds in Europe this week, defending U.S. policies of "rendition" as a tactic in the war on terror. Amid recent revelations that there were secret CIA interrogation prisons in Europe, Rice insists the U.S. is doing nothing illegal. At the same time, she has assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel that "the U.S. would use 'every lawful means' to protect citizens from the threat of international terrorism."
And so continues the fun word game surrounding the definitions of "torture," and "legal." I imagine that Webster will have dedicated a page each to these entries in the next edition of the dictionary. If you weren't aware of the way the administration has dissected and reframed these definitions, Rice would have appeared to have taken a hard line against torture, asserting the following:

• The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture
• The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured
• The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.
All these statements succeed in accomplishing is begging the question: then what are we doing? Why all this covert action and money being put into flying people to countries that use torture, why set up secret prisons all over the world? This administration would benefit handsomely from employing the old fast-talking micro-machines guy to read off a list of qualifiers whenever the words "torture" and "within the law" are uttered.

Rice's campaign is clearly an effort to steer conversation away from details about CIA interrogations and secret prisons, and towards the possible benefits of these un-disclosable tactics. While insisting that the U.S. operates within current laws, Rice goes on to explain that the laws we are apparently abiding by are not applicable to the current conflict. This is always the out. While administration officials insist that we are abiding by laws, out of the other side of the same mouth they are re-dictating legal standards and insisting that the current laws are not applicable.

Note Rice's insistence that, "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. 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 subtext to this "we aren't doing anything bad, and even if we are, it's worth it" argument is highly insidious. Within it lies a complete reversal of one of the founding principles of the U.S. justice system: innocent until proven guilty.
Indeed, while Rice extolled the virtues of rendition, the Washington Post broke the story of a German citizen, Khaled Masri, who was wrongfully imprisoned by the CIA for five months. According to the WaPo, U.S. officials requested that the German government not mention this little mess-up: "U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations."
But if everything we're doing is legal, why the hesitation? According to some of the CIA officials the WaPo spoke with, there have been a number of what they call "erroneous renditions." One such case involved a college professor who was implicated because he had apparently given an al Qaeda member a bad grade. Masri himself was held because "the head of the CIA's Counter-terrorist Center's al Qaeda unit 'believed he was someone else.'" Yes, according to a former CIA official, "She didn't really know. She just had a hunch."
Just to be clear, this isn't a case of mistakenly locking someone up for a few days. The CIA's rendition group follows a standard procedure which involves the following: "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.'" For five months, German citizen Khaled Masri was held and allegedly beaten because someone in the CIA had a "hunch" that he was someone else, despite his valid passport and no evidence that he wasn't who he claimed to be.
This ushers in the other linchpin of American democratic principles that has been implicitly overturned by the administration's handling of terrorism suspects: checks and balances. The only reason the public heard anything at all about these "erroneous renditions" is because CIA personnel came forward. It's easy to see mistakes in hindsight. And easier still for the media to rail against these mistakes that are revealed. More important is exploring the system that allows these mistakes to continually occur. Part of it is the lack of checks and balances -- but this stems from the administration's push for extended executive privileges during "wartime."
The pressure to extract information from alleged terrorists and capture them before "another 9/11" has been mentioned time and again in conjunction with detainee abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib. The need to respond quickly to 9/11 and pressure from higher ups led to an almost instantaneous restructuring of our intelligence and security agencies. According to one former senior intelligence agent, "Whatever quality control mechanisms were in play on September 10th were eliminated on September 11th."
The problem is that this hastily erected structure has yet to be revisited. Some four years later, the U.S. is still hopped up on post-9/11 urgency and war rhetoric. Similar to the Patriot Acts, which were pushed through Congress in the immediate wake of 9/11, expanded executive and CIA privileges have stubbornly stuck around without appropriate revision and reevaluation. Rice is requesting that Americans and Europeans let intelligence agents do their jobs. But what, exactly, do these jobs entail?

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