Apart from these Republican pressures, President Obama’s own aggressive views on national security have contributed to an undeniable continuity with many of his predecessor’s most controversial policies. Not only has he preserved the controversial military commissions at Guantanamo and fought the courts to block civil suits against torture perpetrators, he has, above all, authorized continuing CIA rendition flights.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama went beyond any other candidate in offering unqualified opposition to both direct and indirect U.S. involvement in torture. “We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture, period,” he said, adding, “That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions.”
Only days after his January 2009 inauguration, Obama issued a dramatic executive order ending the CIA’s coercive techniques, but it turned out to include a large loophole that preserved the agency’s role in extraordinary renditions. Amid his order’s ringing rhetoric about compliance with the Geneva conventions and assuring “humane treatment of individuals in United States custody,” the president issued a clear and unequivocal order that “the CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” But when the CIA’s counsel objected that this blanket prohibition would also “take us out of the rendition business,” Obama added a footnote with a small but significant qualification: “The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in… this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Through the slippery legalese of this definition, Obama thus allowed the CIA continue its rendition flights of terror suspects to allied nations for possible torture.
Moreover, in February 2009, Obama’s incoming CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the agency would indeed continue the practice “in renditions where we returned an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and they exercised their rights… to prosecute him under their laws. I think,” he added, ignoring the U.N. anti-torture convention’s strict conditions for this practice, “that is an appropriate use of rendition.”
As the CIA expanded covert operations inside Somalia under Obama, its renditions of terror suspects from neighboring East African nations continued just as they had under Bush. In July 2009, for example, Kenyan police snatched an al-Qaeda suspect, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, from a Nairobi slum and delivered him to that city’s airport for a CIA flight to Mogadishu. There he joined dozens of prisoners grabbed off the streets of Kenya inside “The Hole” — a filthy underground prison buried in the windowless basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency. While Somali guards (paid for with U.S. funds) ran the prison, CIA operatives, reported the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, have open access for extended interrogation.
Obama also allowed the continuation of a policy adopted after the Abu Ghraib scandal: outsourcing incarceration to local allies in Afghanistan and Iraq while ignoring human rights abuses there. Although the U.S. military received 1,365 reports about the torture of detainees by Iraqi forcesbetween May 2004 and December 2009, a period that included Obama’s first full year in office, American officers refused to take action, even though the abuses reported were often extreme.
Simultaneously, Washington’s Afghan allies increasingly turned to torture after the Abu Ghraib scandal prompted U.S. officials to transfer most interrogation to local authorities. After interviewing 324 detainees held by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) in 2011, the U.N. found that “torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan.” At the Directorate’s prison in Kandahar one interrogator told a detainee before starting to torture him, “You should confess what you have done in the past as Taliban; even stones confess here.”
Although such reports prompted both British and Canadian forces to curtail prisoner transfers, the U.S. military continues to turn over detainees to Afghan authorities — a policy that, commented the New York Times, “raises serious questions about potential complicity of American officials.”
After a decade of intense public debate over torture, in the last two years the United States has arrived at a questionable default political compromise: impunity at home, rendition abroad.
This resolution does not bode well for future U.S. leadership of an international community determined to end the scourge of torture. Italy’s prosecution of two-dozen CIA agents for rendition in 2009, Poland’s recent indictment of its former security chief for facilitating a CIA black site, and Britain’s ongoing criminal investigation of intelligence officials who collaborated with alleged torture at Guantanamo are harbingers of continuing pressures on the U.S. to comply with international standards for human rights.
Meanwhile, unchecked by any domestic or international sanction, Washington has slid down torture’s slippery slope to find, just as the French did in Algeria during the 1950s, that at its bottom lies the moral abyss of extrajudicial execution. The systematic French torture of thousands during the Battle of Algiers in 1957 also generated over 3,000 “summary executions” to insure, as one French general put it, that “the machine of justice” not be “clogged with cases.”
In an eerie parallel, Washington has reacted to the torture scandals of the Bush era by generally forgoing arrests and opting for no-fuss aerial assassinations. From 2005 to 2012, U.S. drone killings inside Pakistan rose from zero to a total of 2,400 (and still going up) — a figure disturbingly close to those 3,000 French assassinations in Algeria. In addition, it has now been revealed that the president himself regularly orders specific assassinations by drone in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia off a secret “kill list.” Simultaneously, his administration has taken just one terror suspect into U.S. custody and has not added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, thereby avoiding any more clogging of the machinery of American justice.
Absent any searching inquiry or binding reforms, assassination is now the everyday American way of war while extraordinary renditions remain a tool of state. Make no mistake: some future torture scandal is sure to arise from another iconic dungeon in the dismal, ever-lengthening historical procession leading from the “tiger cages” of South Vietnam to “the salt pit” in Afghanistan and “The Hole” in Somalia. Next time, the world might not be so forgiving. Next time, with those images from Abu Ghraib prison etched in human memory, the damage to America’s moral authority as world leader could prove even more deep and lasting.