In a breathless piece of reporting in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, we are told that Barack Obama “left intact” a “controversial counter-terrorism tool” called renditions. Moreover, the Times states, quoting unnamed “current and former U.S. intelligence figures,” Obama may actually be planning to expand the program. The report notes the existence of a European Parliament report condemning the practice, but states “the Obama Administration appears to have determined that the rendition program was one component of the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism that it could not afford to discard.”
The Los Angeles Times just got punked. Its description of the European Parliament’s report is not accurate. (Point of disclosure: I served as an expert witness in hearings leading to the report.) But that’s the least of its problems. It misses the difference between the renditions program, which has been around since the Bush 41 Administration at least (and arguably in some form even in the Reagan Administration) and the extraordinary renditions program which was introduced by Bush 43 and clearly shut down under an executive order issued by President Obama in his first week.
There are two fundamental distinctions between the programs. The extraordinary renditions program involved the operation of long-term detention facilities either by the CIA or by a cooperating host government together with the CIA, in which prisoners were held outside of the criminal justice system and otherwise unaccountable under law for extended periods of time. A central feature of this program was rendition to torture, namely that the prisoner was turned over to cooperating foreign governments with the full understanding that those governments would apply techniques that even the Bush Administration considers to be torture. This practice is a felony under current U.S. law, but was made a centerpiece of Bush counterterrorism policy.
The earlier renditions program regularly involved snatching and removing targets for purposes of bringing them to justice by delivering them to a criminal justice system. It did not involve the operation of long-term detention facilities and it did not involve torture. There are legal and policy issues with the renditions program, but they are not in the same league as those surrounding extraordinary rendition. Moreover, Obama committed to shut down the extraordinary renditions program, and continuously made clear that this did not apply to the renditions program.
In the course of the last week we’ve seen a steady stream of efforts designed to show that Obama is continuing the counterterrorism programs that he previously labeled as abusive and promised to shut down. These stories are regularly sourced to unnamed current or former CIA officials and have largely run in right-wing media outlets. However, now we see that even the Los Angeles Times can be taken for a ride.