Let’s lift the veil on rendition

John Brennan served in the CIA while the George W. Bush administration was "rendering" terrorism suspects. Brennan is President Obama's nominee for CIA director.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

When John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, appears Thursday at confirmation hearings to become the CIA’s next director, Americans will have a rare opportunity to learn new details about the intelligence agency’s secret rendition and detention program.

Brennan served in the CIA while the George W. Bush administration was “rendering” terrorism suspects — nabbing them off streets around the world to be secretly detained and interrogated, sometimes using torture, while in the custody of the CIA or foreign governments. In 2005, Brennan said that he was “intimately familiar” with cases of rendition and that he considered the practice “an absolutely vital tool” in combating terrorism.

Senators should ask Brennan to explain his statements and whether he intends to continue rendition, and if so, with what safeguards. Senators should also demand public answers to specific questions: Exactly who has been rendered? Where? What happened to them?


A new report by the Open Society Justice Initiative provides some answers. The report — based on U.S. and foreign government documents, investigations by human rights groups, news reports and other credible public sources — names 136 individuals who were allegedly subjected to the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition and secret detention operations. There might be more, but secrecy shields these operations.

The report also identifies 54 foreign governments said to have participated in these secret detention and rendition operations. These governments are responsible, along with the United States, for the torture and other human rights violations that resulted.

Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad Zery, two Egyptian nationals who were taken from Sweden to Egypt, were subjected to electric shocks. Canadian citizen Maher Arar was held in a tiny grave-like cell and beaten with cables after being rendered to his native Syria. Khaled Masri was abducted and tortured in Macedonia before being rendered to Afghanistan, where he endured more abuse. These are some of the best-known cases, but the report details many more.

The United States has failed to meaningfully acknowledge these abuses, to compensate the victims or to hold its officials accountable. Courts in the U.S. have denied redress to victims of CIA torture. The Justice Department has investigated only ill-treatment that allegedly exceeded the abuses its Office of Legal Counsel had authorized. No charges have been filed.

But it’s getting harder for the U.S. government to crouch behind a veil of secrecy and avoid liability and censure around the world. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Macedonia violated Masri’s rights and that his treatment by the CIA amounted to torture. Italy’s courts have convicted U.S. officials involved in the rendition of Egyptian national Abu Omar. More challenges to rendition are pending in Europe and Africa.

The U.S. and its 54 partners should admit the truth, hold the responsible persons accountable and end abusive counter-terrorism practices. These steps are essential for restoring Washington’s moral authority to advocate for human rights around the world, as well as its ability to recruit foreign government partners in its counter-terrorism efforts.

After President Obama took office in 2009, he issued an executive order disavowing torture and closing secret CIA prisons. The order did not definitively repudiate rendition, however. Current policies and practices with respect to rendition remain secret. The administration is withholding the unclassified findings and recommendations of a 2009 interagency task force that reviewed U.S. interrogation and transfer policies.

The Senate should ask Brennan to make the CIA more transparent and permit a full reckoning of the human and moral cost of the CIA’s rendition and torture program. Senators should also ask Brennan to support the public release of the bipartisan, 6,000-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA detention and interrogation that the committee approved in December.

Amrit Singh, the author of “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition,” is senior legal officer for national security and counter-terrorism at the Open Society Justice Initiative.