Rendition: Nothing new under the CIA's sun

Published in Turkish Daily News, 16 June 2008

Thanks to a few amateur plane watchers across Europe, we the mortals, who have no direct access to top secret deals and documents, have caught a tiny glimpse of the CIA's rendition program. Our knowledge of the program still draws from investigations of independent researchers and human rights organizations as well as testimonies of the small portion of detainees who have been released.

We can only speculate on the scope of the CIA's operations, but from what we can be certain of, there are two elements to rendition. The first one is the kidnapping of terror suspects globally by CIA teams or arrests of suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US armed forces or ally Iraqi and Afghan soldiers. The captives are held as “enemy combatants” in indefinite and incommunicado detention.

CIA's black sites:

Besides known military facilities where they are imprisoned, such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, airbases in Afghanistan, and the British island Dieogo Garcia in the Indian Ocean, there are secret prisons, referred to as “black sites” in official documents, which are run by the CIA in Eastern Europe, Africa and South East Asia with full cooperation or silent acceptance of local governments.

Reprieve, a British human rights group, recently pointed out the existence of military and civilian ships that are used as jails. Reprieve estimates that there are as many as 17 floating prisons wandering in international waters. This was a whispered rumor, but now it is being said publicly with the support of first hand testimonies of released detainees.

However, the most cunning (and immoral) policy the Bush administration has backed is outsourcing torture and imprisonment. In this headache-free approach, an ally country in the Middle East or South East Asia arrests and detains individuals in co-operation with the CIA. The subcontracted countries are already known for their notorious human rights abuses. Therefore, it is not the CIA who tortures or the U.S. Government who violates international law, but a third country (or employees of private security firms) presumes full legal culpability while the U.S. intelligence officers gather “vital intelligence” in “the war against terror.”

Although we have no knowledge of active participation of the United Kingdom in kidnappings, sadly it is clear that the U.K., and Germany, have benefited from the CIA's dirty activities, used the intelligence gathered through rendition and even allowed their citizens to be kept in horrible conditions. We do not know if Turkey has ever been involved in rendition. However, given the tensions that the Iraq invasion caused in Turkey and the refusal of the Turkish Parliament to grant right of passage to American troops heading for Iraq, it would be safe to argue that Turkey have not partaken of this scheme. It is, however, possible that the CIA planes carrying captives have used civilian and military airbases in Turkey without notifying the Turkish state.

Crime by government:

Whether an individual is directly kidnapped and kept by the CIA or by a third country, a captured prisoner has no real legal rights, protection, a clear end to his suffering or a chance to seek justice when it becomes clear that he may have been kept because of a mistake and that he might be innocent. The entire program is a serious breach of international law and denies individuals their most basic and non-negotiable rights in their arrests, detention, grotesque treatment and denial of access to legal representation and fair judicial process.

Their imprisonment in ambiguous lands out side of the U.S. or on floating boats on international waters have removed their access to the U.S. courts, thus any chance of keeping U.S. intelligence agencies accountable for gross human rights abuses they have committed. Alas, last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo detainees have the legal right to access U.S. courts. What this ruling practically means and whether or not this will apply to all of the ghost prisoners in detention across the world remains ambiguous.

We will never know how many people have been victims of this policy. Reprieve claims that currently the United States is detaining 26,000 individuals without trial in secret prisons. Some of the captives clearly have links to militant Islamist groups or were Taliban fighters or are captured jihadists in Iraq. Some are just kidnapped on the tip of local intelligence agencies, sometimes arrested just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ethnic and religious backgrounds, or because of name similarities. Some are handed over to American soldiers by Afghan or Iraqi militias and troops just because of cultural, political and personal grudges.

Sadly, none of this is new. During WWII, the United States kidnapped innocent Japanese residents in Latin America, not because of any suspected crime or relationship with Japan's war efforts. They were kidnapped as bargaining chips, simple people to be sold as Japanese officers and spies. When the war ended, a couple of thousand of them were stranded in the United States. They did not have any travel documents and were not allowed to be U.S. citizens. When Bill Clinton was in office, the U.S. Government offered these people an apology, albeit a superficial one with no concrete solution or recompense.

Stop this madness:

To those who believe that human history is a linear march, always towards the good and higher levels and naively hold that we learn (or can ever learn) from the horrors of our histories, what Chuang Tzu noted some 2300 years ago might come as surprising: “The greatest crimes are eventually shown to have been necessary, and, in fact, a signal benefit to mankind.”

So, it seems that Kohelet was right: There is nothing new under the sun. How many times have we watched yesterday's victims turning into today's perpetrators? How many times in the 20th century alone have we acted with great “strength” and moved “beyond good and evil” to “protect our way of life” and to assert our “self-determination,” all at the expense of fellow human beings weaker than us? How many millions have been lost to this Tolkeinic pursuit? And how much more is needed before we stop this madness?