Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


"Rendition" or Openness?

Juan Non-Volokh writes:

Ignatius notes that espionage and interrogation experts tend to doubt that torture works. As a friend with experience in that area put it to me: Torture makes people tell you what they think you want to hear, when what you want is the truth. Nonetheless, rendition may result in the torture of terrorist suspects when they are sent to countries where such methods are legal. Does this mean rendition should be prohibited? Ignatius is not so sure.
(Quoting Ignatius🙂

Before you make an easy judgment about rendition, you have to answer the disturbing question put to me by a former CIA official: Suppose the FBI had captured Mohamed Atta before Sept. 11, 2001. Under U.S. legal rules at the time, the man who plotted the airplane suicide attacks probably could not have been held or interrogated in the United States. Would it have made sense to “render” Atta to a place where he could have been interrogated in a way that might have prevented Sept. 11? That’s not a simple question for me to answer, even as I share the conviction that torture is always and everywhere wrong.

No, it would not have made sense to send Atta off to be tortured. On Sept 10th, we did not know what he was planning. Would it make sense to arrest friends of Matthew Hale? One of them, who may have committed suicide during a traffic stop, killed Judge Lefkow’s husband and mother. Before September 11th, we did not know what Atta was planning, or even if he was really up to anything more than talk.

So what to do if we’d arrested (not captured, thank you, we still believe in rule of law) Mohamed Atta? Well, perhaps instead of keeping it a secret, we could announce it. Would that have done any good? Yes. We can say that with much greater confidence than we can say his secret arrest and torture would have had an effect. In his excellent Congressional testimony (via Schneier), Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive writes:

This occurs on page 247 and is repeated on page 276 with the footnote on page 541, quoting the interrogation of the hijackers’ paymaster, Ramzi Binalshibh. Binalshibh commented that if the organizers, particularly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had known that the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, had been arrested at his Minnesota flight school (he only wanted to fly, not to take off or land) on immigration charges, then Bin Ladin and KSM would have called off the 9/11 attacks.

The institutions that have evolved for dealing with those who would destroy our societies are effective. (Given that our societies are still here.) Not only are they effective, they are deeply powerful. They have allowed American ingenuity to make us one of the richest societies in the world. We should understand that when we celebrate these traditions, we inspire the world. When we abandon them, when we betray our founding principles, people around the world feel abandoned and betrayed.

One comment on ""Rendition" or Openness?"

  • Iang says:

    I think it is a stupidly easy question to answer. You answered it correctly; when any punishment is meted out based on nothing other than the say so of the authorities, then there is no rule of law.
    Also, if it was an american terrorist, are we now talking about rendering an american to another country for torture?
    The american people clearly think in terms of “one rule for us, another for them.” This gets them into trouble at every step in their journey. Yet, oddly, the american constitution grants the rights of law to all people.
    Why the dichomoty? I’ll bet the CIA agent mentioned above would have been horrified to “render one of us.”

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