Rendition, secret prisons and the global war on terrorism

Almost four and a half years since the administration of US President George W Bush declared a global war on terrorism against Al-Qaeda, the campaign is now suffering as much from issues of ethical policy as it is from ineffective strategy and tactics. After the scandal of Abu Ghraib, the latest questions concern US use of 'extraordinary rendition' and the outsourcing of detention and interrogation.

Although few conclusive facts are available, the Council of Europe's publication of a report on whether or not European allies were aware of such activities taking place on their soil suggests that the allegations are not totally spurious. In addition to the report, published in January, the European Parliament has created its own investigative committee to look into the question of unmarked CIA 'black flights' of terrorist suspects occurring within EU territory.


This latest scandal erupted after a November 2005 article in the Washington Post alleged that the CIA was running "black sites" - detention facilities where terrorist suspects are taken for interrogation without due process - in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Thailand. This follows numerous first-person accounts in the European and US media from individuals who have been rendered, that is, taken from one nation to another against their will, without the use of the internationally recognised processes of formal extradition.

While there are no universal regulations governing extradition, it is common practice for the state wishing to extradite a suspect to satisfy at least two fundamental criteria: the crime the suspect is accused of must be a crime in the nation he or she will be extradited from, and the country wishing to take possession of the individual must make a preliminary case before a judicial body or review organ demonstrating the existence of a reasonable case. Extraordinary rendition does away will both of these criteria.

Although many individuals have reported being snatched from countries such as Italy, Germany and Macedonia, the European countries accused of hosting such detainees in secret prisons have strenuously denied the existence of so-called black sites. However, a member of the Czech cabinet has said that he was approached with such a request on behalf the US government but that his government refused to comply. An Italian academic and an Afghan stabilisation monitor have also made statements in the Italian press indicating that such sites exist.

While the Council of Europe's report on rendition states that the number of such cases exceeds 100 and that the governments of the nations that the individuals were taken from and transported through must have known about the flights, the report provides no hard evidence beyond first-person allegations.

For its part, the US government has admitted to transporting prisoners across international borders but not to the existence of black sites or the use of torture. Nevertheless, the fact that US Vice-President Dick Cheney has been aggressively lobbying Congress to block legislation outlawing "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of prisoners, calling for an exception for the CIA in cases that involve a detainee who may have knowledge of an imminent attack, is telling.

More damning is the performance given by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on her recent European tour. When challenged on whether the US had transported suspects to other countries to be tortured, her carefully worded answer denied that torture had been used by the US but did not address whether such tactics had been used by other governments in the interests, or at the request, of the US. Rice's position on rendition, however, is clear. In December 2005, she said: "Rendition is a vital tool in combating transnational terrorism."


When the latest accusations concerning renditions were aired, the question as to which countries in central or Eastern Europe could be black site host nations was raised. Hungary was helpful to the US prior to its deployments of troops to the Balkans in the 1990s. After the attacks against the US on 11 September 2001, Hungary also provided a base for training Iraqi dissidents in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. However, the Eastern European nation that has been of the most strategic value to the US administration through its stalwart stance as an ally is Poland. Thanks in part to its historically strong ties to the US, but also as a result of its sizeable contribution to the Iraqi operation, Poland could have found it difficult to refuse if the US had asked it to assist with renditions.

The same can be said of Romania, but for different reasons. Throughout the 1990s, especially before acquiring NATO membership, Bucharest ran an incredibly active diplomatic and political offensive within the Washington beltway. This was reinvigorated following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, when US base-positioning policies were re-evaluated. The US Department of Defense, under Donald Rumsfeld, decided to close many bases in Germany and look further east to establish newer, cheaper ones. As a result, a request by the US to establish a black facility, or facilities, in Romania may have met with a positive response. However, we may never know the full truth. Intelligence sources have reported that, following the Washington Post's coverage of the issue, the black sites in the region were dismantled and moved to countries farther afield and less open to political and media scrutiny. Even before the story ran, it had been alleged that such practices had been facilitated in countries such as Jordan. Nevertheless, according to one former CIA officer, the idea that prisons could have been created in Eastern Europe is not far-fetched.

Policy wisdom

A more important question, in terms of US policy and the global war on terrorism, is whether or not practices such as rendition and torture would be beneficial to the overall goal of making the US and its allies safer and of neutralising the current foe. The question is a complex one since it is connected to so many different issues and previous decisions. The most important issue is the nature of the conflict as a whole. If, by invoking the phrase 'global war on terrorism', the US means that it is in a war, then that has distinct legal ramifications within international law. If the US decides that those it fights who do not belong to a recognised government or formal armed force should be considered not prisoners of war when captured but 'illegal combatants', that too will have consequences.

Political issues are also at stake. If the US is seen as having a vested interest in maintaining the international system it helped to establish following the Second World War, then actions committed by the US that wantonly disregard international norms of extradition will necessarily undermine the argument that the US is fighting for the values of rule of law and democracy. Such behaviour will simply add to the tensions that already exist between the US and those allies that disapprove of such tools.

While none of these criticisms has had much immediate impact on those US policy-makers who act with a narrow definition of US national interest in mind, the fact is that even the highest-ranking members of the current administration are coming to the realisation that a ground-up review of the policies of the global war on terrorism and its methods is well overdue. One indication of this is the creation of the Pentagon's 'counter ideological support to terrorism' initiative, which attempts to go beyond military solutions to undermine the broader support structure of organisations such as Al-Qaeda. But technical reforms alone are unlikely to be enough. At a recent high-level international workshop hosted by the University of Central Florida and tasked specifically with a review of current global war on terrorism practices, counterterrorism expert Brian Jenkins summarised it succinctly: "Counterterrorism is not just about technique. There is a moral component." Such a moral component would be greatly undermined if conclusive proof of black sites were to become available in the near future.

SebestyƩn Gorka is executive director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security and adjunct professor for Terrorism Studies at the George C Marshall Centre in Germany. In the past, he has worked for the RAND Corporation in Washington and has been a Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the NATO Defence College and the Terrorism Research Centre of Virginia.

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