Forced removals: hundreds of terrorism suspects have been transferred by the US to prisons in countries with questionable human rights records.
The Times | Feb 2, 2009
By Tom Baldwin in Washington
The banner headlines greeting President Obama’s decision to close Guantánamo Bay and secret CIA prisons may have concealed how he has retained one of the most controversial weapons in the War on Terror.
Under executive orders signed on January 22, the CIA appears to have preserved its authority to carry out renditions – by which hundreds of terrorist suspects have been abducted and transferred to prisons in countries with questionable human rights records such as Egypt, Morocco or Jordan.
The measure, disclosed by the Los Angeles Times yesterday, gives some indication of how Mr Obama’s promise of change may be slower to be realised than once hoped, with the new Administration coming under concerted attack across a range of issues.
These include efforts to get bipartisan backing for a near-$900 billion (£620 billion) economic stimulus programme and the choice for Health Secretary of Tom Daschle, whose failure to pay back taxes has jarred with pledges to restore ethical government.
An Administration official was quoted yesterday defending rendition. “Obviously you need to preserve some tools. You still have to go after the bad guys,” said the official. “It is controversial in some circles. But if done within certain parameters, it is acceptable.”
The European Parliament has condemned renditions, some of which have involved flights with stopovers in British territory, as illegal under international law.
In the executive orders the President signed on January 22, he merely promised a review of rendition policy, with the aim of ensuring that suspects were not sent to other countries “to face torture”. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested yesterday that suspects would be held only temporarily in foreign prisons, but added: “The finer points of it have to be fleshed out.”
Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, the British human rights group, said: “Western liberals are totally deluded at the moment. Like George Bush, who declared ‘mission accomplished’ on Iraq six years ago, they need to realise that the job is far from done. I believe that Obama’s heart is in the right place but he is surrounded by people in the US intelligence and military who don’t want either themselves or their policies subjected to too much scrutiny.”
Claude Moraes, the Labour MEP who was part of the European committee investigating CIA renditions, said it was hard to criticise Mr Obama because he had “god-like status at the moment”, adding: “We should be pleased he has closed Guantánamo and acknowledged the existence of the secret CIA prisons. But if he’s going to complete the change, he must see that rendition is part of the package. I have heard testimony from people who have clearly been tortured in Egypt and Jordan. To deposit people in those prisons still speaks volumes about American foreign policy.”
Mr Obama, who has disappointed liberal activists by his reluctance to order investigations into alleged illegal acts carried out in the name of national security by the Bush Administration, also knows he must brace a war-weary public for a build-up of the battle against the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
His primary focus, however, remains domestic affairs, with the Senate preparing to debate the economic stimulus Bill today amid warnings that there is scant support from Republicans. Last night Mr Obama was hosting a party to watch the Super Bowl at the White House with senior congressmen from both sides of the aisle in the hope of restoring some bipartisan lustre. This week he is also expected to nominate the Republican Senator Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary.
Last week, however, he failed to win a single Republican vote for the stimulus package in the House of Representatives. And Senator Jon Kyl, a senior Republican, told Fox News yesterday that conservatives were becoming angry at the vast – and potentially wasteful – public spending proposed.
Mr Kyl was among a number of Republicans asking yesterday how Mr Daschle failed to inform Mr Obama’s team about a failure to pay $128,203 in back taxes until a few weeks ago, when the Health Secretary-designate had been aware of the mistake as far back as June 2008.
Mr Obama’s half-brother George has insisted that he is not a drug user, after being arrested but then released for alleged marijuana possession in a Kenyan slum. He spent two hours in a police cell before being set free on Saturday.