I'm on the mailing list of the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. Now you know. Since I've been working here in DC for a while, I thought I might attend a seminar in their series. It was good.
On the dais were three talking heads who carried forth on matters concerning Rendition and CIA Black Sites. According to those gathered the CIA operated at least four. Thailand, Poland, Lithuania, Afghanistan and possibly Diego Garcia.
It was a very good session, but as expected, not long and detailed enough to satisfy my curiosity and questions. I did get an opportunity to ask two. Since I think quantitatively, my first question was how many do we know, of those external renditions detoured captives through the black sites? The answer was about 3 dozen over past 20 years. A couple of the speakers did throw around the word 'disappeared' used as a verb, but it was not made clear to me how long it is that a rendee is rent. If I'm in the business of moving Suspect A to Country Two in a legal rendition I do so with the cooperation of Country One and Country Two. So if I take him to Black Site X for n years, how long is it before Country Two starts pissing and moaning? It wouldn't make much sense to disappoint them, especially if we want some cooperation in the future. The overall numbers of renditions number in the hundreds but not in the thousands over the past 20 years. Starting somewhere around 1995 under Clinton there were 70 some-odd renditions, they stepped up sometime later and really got going after 9/11.
It is also unclear to me the ratio of countries who use rendition vs those who use extradition. The manner in which the subject was discussed leads me to believe that extradition treaties are rarer than one would expect - rarer than say trade treaties, and so rendition picks up more than a little slack in the global market of prisoner exchange.The guy in the red shirt across the room asked that question derailing one of mine about the difference between rendition and extradition and Bellinger responded lawyerly well. Mine would have been more specific to Bush's Coalition of the Willing with regard to its expansion of the number of extradition arrangements we have with those countries specifically relating to enemy combatants. However Bellinger's response alluded to the heavy consequences of reciprocity in establishing extradition treaties and, well I think it should be rather obvious that Americans are often seen as criminals by the G77 and we'd be haggling all freakin' day. Better to use rendition than suffer the extra burdens of extradition - even for Al Qaeda.
So to be clear, my reckoning is that there were maybe 1200 renditions in the past 20 years some fraction of those were directly to the US and the great majority of all renditions lead to criminal trials either here or elsewhere. The more controversial of the renditions were those facilitated by the CIA between two countries other than the US, and the most controversial are those between other countries with a stop at a CIA black site along the way. And of those we know to the best of our ability to know that half a half dozen detainees were waterboarded on our properties, though some unknown number may have been subjected to more inhumane treatment by parties known to the CIA in exchange of coerced intelligence. Sources and methods, I'd tell you but I'd have to kill you, yadda yadda.
To remedy all of this madness would require someone with the cajones of Alberto Gonzales to stick his neck out and do independent research on what an enemy combatant is and how you handle such creatures. However since Gonzales was hung out to dry by the like of Nancy Pelosi and the loyal opposition in Congress, the entire subject matter has become uncomfortably taboo under the present Administration. And thus the solution to capture or kill has become kill. And today we have Predator drones doing dirty work that is more acceptable than GTMO work. In other words, instead of capturing personas non grata of foreign soil and subjecting them to the moral and legal complexities of rendition and coercive interrogation, we are merely subjecting them to remotely controlled high explosive munitions on foreign soil without a declaration of war. Pick your poison. Oh ye of Democrat short attention span, do ye recall your horror at Colin Powell's 'video game warfare' in Desert Storm? Well, there is a quantitative difference, but the fact that nobody's even trying to lawyer their way towards a better solution shows the damage done to the body politic by rhetorical bombast and overkill against Bush, Gonzales, Cheney et al. In the meanwhile the military tribunals are still in effect because those running them sued Obama when he tried to stop them.
So my second question was in reference to what possibilities we might have to get Judge Posner's ideas about a CT Circuit implemented. I got some appreciative nods from the panel but Bellinger steered the question back towards rendition. He suggested something I forget because it seemed off the point and tangent I was getting towards. Half of the disgust, from my perspective, with rendition has everything to do with whether the end result is a legitimate criminal trial. And as much as Halperin squawked about failure to Mirandize, as much as Priest duly noted the problems criminal judges have in bringing forth evidence of national security in open court, you'd think they would be much in favor of such a court. To this end, I think Bellinger was playing his hand as a Congressional lobbyist and former White House insider. He knows the answers about policy and now is in a position to get paid for shaping legislation out of a no-op Congress. I really don't know how that business works, but it sounds like a whole lot of fun and profit. Nevertheless, his point, though I forget it, made some sense.
Still, since we only had 90 minutes and three speakers it was predictable that various tactics were employed to make the maximizing (or minimizing) impact.
I came prepared not to like Dana Priest, since I was somewhat familiar with her Post work and noted how bloggers in my circle faulted her for not outing the political persuasion of Mary McCarthy, that woman most closely identified with being the source of her information on CIA black sites. Instead, she detailed a trail of evidence demonstrating the dogged determination of herself and her colleague in tracking down tail numbers of mysterious planes owned by mysterious companies with officers who all have 'Episcopalian' names. Hey, I resent that, says Michael David brother to Bryan Thomas, grandson of Raymond Curtis. But she didn't seem to have much of an axe to grind and was somewhat deferential to yet mystified by the awesome power of computer mediated communications, aka 'the internet' or as she called it, the 2.0 World.
As an aside, it turns out that I may have been one of the crowd whose participation in the planespotting swarm assisted in driving attention towards Priest's research. Oh no wait. That was a year late. Hmm. Point taken.
Without 'journalism', meaning the dogged determination of people with curiosity and database resources, we would not be able to know what it is the government doesn't want us to know. Of course the CIA may be a lot further down the pike with respect to their ability to corral dogged determination and database resources, but just because Dana Priest cannot bell that cat doesn't mean a lot of us mice cannot. I tend to, some would say callously, not give a rat's about the fate of three dozen international terrorist rats over twenty years. So I'm not so interested in belling the CIA cat. AFAIK they were not a rogue operation as the panelists agreed, and the convenient amnesia of critters like Nancy Pelosi is more disgusting to me than the cruelty heaped upon various and sundry jihadis.
Speaking of cruelty, there was no way that we couldn't derail the conversation in the direction of 'waterboarding is torture' histrionics. Mort certainly had a point, a crusader's point, but a valid one nonetheless that you cannot make any judgment on the merits of rendition without giving consideration to the ends of that rendition. If a legal rendition results in an illegal interrogation or worse, then the legality of that rendition is questionable. Moral figleaf. Criminal facilitation. Nor can you insert the comforting language of Condoleeza Rice with regard to the US' respect for the sovereign integrity of Country One and Country Two, if the assurances of rendition amount to a wink and a nod between two intelligence services. Do I trust the CIA when it collaborates with ISI or Shin Bet? Hell no. Those bastards can do anything, and that indeed is their purpose - to do what is doable. Mort's crusade is not without merit, it just defies logic and is ultimately indefensible. You can't ask spy agencies to be accountable in such matters as renditions and black sites. Well, you can, and you set yourself up for being the recipient of an arbitrarily long paper trail. And considering the fact that the Congress will necessarily dither based upon how electable it makes them, and the Judiciary cannot get a lawyer with good shoes in edgewise, especially in Lithuania, we are at the mercy of the Administration. In the case of Obama, Bush and Clinton, war is war, and they reserve all powers they can muster, including Monsters on a Leash.
What I could not get a good sense of was the degree of culpability approaching a standard of declaring some individual persona non grata and subject to an extra-territorial arrest, rendition, detention and such (such meaning interrogation approaching and including torture).
I had some difficulty with Mort Halperin because he works for George Soros, the kind of globalist who defies nationalism. At the same time Halperin speaks about America being a beacon on the hill whose respect for the rule of law should have no peer, he crosses himself to defy America because certain European countries have laws against extradition and rendition to countries that have the death penalty. He has what seems to be an extraordinary faith in the ability to trust democratic actions to make the proper corrections for the excesses of executive action such as the CIA is involved in - all for the purposes of justice. But I think he believes that there is more justice in the world than the world is capable of delivering on time and under budget. Therefore it is his wont to go after the obvious excpetions, the biggest cases where we did wrong, wrong, wrong. Well there are plenty of barrelfish for that moral shotgun, starting with Khalid El Masri the German citizen who, in a case of mistaken identity, was actually kidnapped and detained in a black site for a year then dumped back into Germany without so much as an apology and a pack of hand sanitizer. That guy convinced an attorney that his incredible journey actually happened and so we have a real scandalous fiasco, and a legal victory for the victim. But as witness for the prosecution of the US, I think Halperin overstates (difficult for a neocon like me to admit) the intensity of America's beacon of light to the world. I am not one of those who believes that the level of civilization of a nation can be determined by the fate of its prisoners. I think it should be obvious that enemies of the state, such as Al Qaeda is determined to be, will face some of our most inglorious bastards, and they should. I am not so convinced that three dozen assassinations over 20 years is unacceptable, but perhaps I read too much history and am not so convinced that America breeds a different, kinder, gentler sort of human being.
So as Halperin rants under the wing of Soros, I tend to be very skeptical of his concepts of international law and of his application of it in this case. After all, it is not his job to keep anyone safe. And while I appreciate his appetite for limiting undemocratic power, I can't say with confidence that any greater good is adequately served by drawing attention to the families of Al Qaeda fighters who may have been used to draw such fighters into traps. Why should those widows and orphans be compensated by the US, ever? As well, Halperin stepped into a sandtrap in describing his view of 'the field of battle'. That was just an error born in the Vietnam era that has yet to be buried. It is not useful at all.
All of the panelists remarked on the relative amnesia of the public and what's not getting done to move reasonably forward on this complex matter. And all said Obama's no better, which is not really a surprise to me. Still, I'm thinking, perhaps to the chagrin of both Bellinger and Halperin that some of us out here in the blogosphere are a very proper audience to all of the details that can be exposed. And the International Spy Museum is really missing out on an opportunity, given the SRO turnout at their 12.50 a head seminar, to extend this conversation onto a website. There may not be a business model that can get someone with the skills of Dana Priest, John Bellinger, and Mort Halperin to enter arguments and documents into a critical and thoughtful public. That is why I find it rather sad that they make money where they are tangential to their ability to hold forth an extraordinary discourse on a matter of such weight.
On the other hand, the whole thing was taped. Maybe we'll find it on YouTube.