The Bush Era's Dark Legacy of Torture

There's a scene in the political drama Rendition where Peter Sarsgaard -- playing a well-meaning but ultimately cowardly senior aid to a powerful senator -- unsuccessfully approaches the icy head of the CIA's counterterrorism unit (Meryl Streep) about the case of Anwar El-Ibrahimi, an Egyptian immigrant with an American wife and child who has been kidnapped by hooded CIA operatives at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on erroneous suspicions of terrorist ties and sent to be tortured in an unidentified North African country (presumably Egypt). Put off by her arrogance and frustrated by her rebuff, Sarsgaard's character says in a stern up-close whisper, "Perhaps I should have a copy of the Constitution delivered to your office."

Streep answers archly: "What are you taking issue with?" she hisses. "The disappearance of a particular man? Or a national security policy?"

To anyone opposed to the government practice of snatching people off the street, erasing any record of their whereabouts, flying them off to a black hole in some human rights-violating netherworld, and subjecting them to sadistic torture techniques in the name of a "war on terror," the answer is painfully obvious. But in our enduringly surreal political era, the question cuts to the heart of the actual debates that are currently playing out on Capitol Hill.

The day before the national premier of Rendition, amid no fanfare, a joint hearing was held by the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees on the case of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, the software engineer who was famously detained at JFK Airport in 2002 and covertly flown to his native Syria, where, for ten months, he was physically and mentally tortured -- in a U.S. operation inside a nation the administration labels "terrorist." Eventually, Arar was sent home to an apology and compensation from the Canadian -- not U.S. -- government. Despite the fact that it was the United States that sent him to face such a nightmare, four years later the Bush administration has yet to apologize to Mr. Arar -- or even acknowledge his ordeal. In fact, despite an independent Canadian investigation that last fall cleared him of anything remotely resembling criminal activity (In 2004, the same year President Bush was named "Person of the Year" by Time magazine, Arar was named Time Canada's "newsmaker of the year"), Arar remains on the United States terrorist watch list and was thus unable to travel to Washington to testify at the hearing on his own case. Instead, he delivered his words in front of a camera from Ottawa, his testimony delivered to the Congress courtesy of satellite hookup.

It was not the first time the Congress has discussed extraordinary rendition -- or Arar's case, for that matter. The case achieved notoriety years ago, and YouTube contains multiple clips of a very angry Sen. Patrick Leahy laying into former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this past winter about the torture of Maher Arar.

"We knew damn well if he went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured," the Vermont senator boomed. "He'd be held and he'd be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country ... to send somebody to another country to be tortured. You know and I know that this has happened a number of times the past five years by this country."

There was no such drama at this hearing; in part because there was no administration official to grill. But there were plenty of theatrics, mostly from the Republican side. Pausing only to offer their personal -- not official -- apologies to Mr. Arar for the "tragic mistake" that led to his kidnap and torture, defenders of extraordinary rendition did everything they could to spin and promote the program as an indispensable tool in the War on Terror.

Leading the charge was Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican, who opened with a smirk and a nod at what must be his imagined collusion between Hollywood and Congress. "Let us note that this is an opportune moment to be having a hearing on the issue of rendition," he said, "because it just happens to be the subject of a movie that is about to come out. What a coincidence!" Casting extraordinary rendition as a government program like Medicare only less problematic -- "hundreds of thousands of people die because of human error in the Medicare system" -- Rohrabacher repeatedly invoked Sept. 11 to remind people that, in a time of war, "there's no such thing as perfection." "This was one year after the most brutal and bloody foreign attack on American soil in the history of our country," he said about Arar's ordeal, which took began on Sept. 26, 2002." More importantly, "rendition is used to fight our war against radicals who want to end our way of life." (Rohrabacher is uniquely poised to make such accusations, having traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight alongside the Mujahadeen against the Soviets -- on the very same side as Bin Laden.)

Discussions of extraordinary rendition are too often sanitized -- and this hearing was no exception. What actually happens to a prisoner was memorably described by Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece, "Outsourcing Torture" in February of 2005, in which she described the rendition of two Egyptian men following Sept. 11:

"On December 18, 2001, at Stockholm's Bromma Airport, a half-dozen hooded security officials ushered two Egyptian asylum seekers, Muhammad Zery and Ahme Agiza, into an empty office. They cut off the Egyptians' clothes with scissors, forcibly administered sedatives by suppository, swaddled them in diapers, and dressed them in orange jumpsuits ... the suspects were blindfolded, placed in handcuffs and leg irons according to a declassified Swedish government report, the men were then flown to Cairo on a U.S.-registered Gulfstream V jet."
The lawmakers on Capitol Hill may consider themselves in too genteel a setting to talk so bluntly. But, while his testimony was not graphic, Maher Arar's refusal to comply with the "bad apples" narrative -- one that would render his ordeal an unfortunate exception to an otherwise legitimate program -- his story is a powerful counter-narrative against the lies and excesses of the "war on terror." "An error in a program does not mean that that program in and of itself is a wrong program," Rohrabacher argued. Such claims have become staples in defending the most repressive policies of the administration's war, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to Blackwater. "The most fundamental question that has not been answered yet is why did the U.S. government decide to send me to Syria and not to Canada," he told the legislators. "I would believe that this was an innocent mistake if it weren't happening to others ... Inflicting people with torture under any circumstances is wrong."

This is the message the Bush administration -- and much of Congress -- has been continually unwilling to hear. It is too easy to label the Arar case a "tragic mistake," as though only innocent people have the right not to be tortured. While the hearing on Capitol Hill did something to address the repugnance of an "extrajudicial" (read: illegal) program like extraordinary rendition, there was little suggestion that the program is under threat, or anything vaguely resembling an investigation. In fact, there was an air of helplessness to the proceedings when it came to the question of how to proceed. ("Now that we will have a new attorney general, maybe there's hope.") "This is not the end of the examination into what happened to Maher Arar," co-chairman Bill Delahunt concluded. But the Arar case is only the tip of the iceberg.

Contrary to common perception, extraordinary rendition was not born under Bush but under the Clinton administration in the 1990s, when it gave approval to the CIA to send "terror" suspects to be interrogated in Egypt. In the wake of Sept. 11, the program was dramatically escalated by the Bush administration; in the words of former CIA counterterrorism chief J. Cofer Black, who once oversaw the rendition program, "All you need to know: there was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off." (Or as Rohrabacher said at the hearing, "When you are at war with people who are willing to slaughter those numbers of people, that does affect the way you do business.")

In February of this year, the European Parliament released a report that documented some 1,245 secret CIA flights that passed through European airspace between 2001 and 2005, many to countries with dismal human rights records. How many of those planes carried prisoners is hard to know, but the number of people who appear to have been tortured under the banner of the American flag over the past six years is disturbingly high. There's the explosive case of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr ("Abu Omar") who was kidnapped in Milan and sent to Egypt with the complicity of Italian officials. (This past February, an Italian judge indicted 25 suspected CIA operatives for their role in his abduction.) There's the case of Binyam Mohamed, kidnapped in a Karachi airport and subjected to brutal torture in Morocco. There is Khalid A-Masri, a Kuwaiti living in Germany who was kidnapped in Macedonia and brutally interrogated for five months. The list goes on.

One of the unnerving strengths of Rendition, the film, is what it captures about the callousness and missionary zeal of leaders who believe their own rhetoric. When Dana Rohrabacher suggested that, as a father of two, Arar might be grateful for extraordinary rendition, given that it has prevented terrorist attacks that might hurt them, he sounds a lot like Meryl Streep when she says that 7,000 people in London are alive thanks to the program, among them, her grandchildren. The difference: an actress of her caliber delivers the line with a cold precision that gives it a slightly terrifying credibility -- credibility that is utterly lacking when it flows from the lips of elected representatives. Particularly the president. "You can't expect me and people in the government to do what we need to do to protect you and your family if we don't gave the tools that we think are necessary to do so," a petulant George W. Bush told Matt Lauer when he confronted him on the CIA's secret prisons last fall. Anyway, he said, "whatever we have done is legal."

Many have lauded the making of Rendition as a generally positive development -- dissent, Hollywood style -- but its happy ending, where a noble CIA agent exposes the injustice of one judicial miscarriage in isolation of a state-sanctioned program of kidnapping and torture, stands in jarring contrast to the case of Maher Arar, whose attempts to clear his name have been blocked at every turn by the Bush administration. For him, "the abuse is ongoing." "They have not allowed me to pursue justice in courts," he says. "... I have not been able to establish trust in the system."

At one point in Rendition, Jake Gyllenhaal's character, the CIA operative overseeing his first torture of a rendered prisoner, quotes Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice to question the validity of torture as an interrogation technique: "I fear you speak upon the rack, where men enforced do speak anything." U.S. lawmakers do not labor in a foreign dungeon, nor is their speech -- or silence -- coerced through simulated drowning. With every torture taxi that takes off, the U.S. Constitution and the nation's reputation are extraordinarily rendered along with the victims of a U.S. program that should have been something out of Hollywood fiction and not official policy.

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