Thursday, February 05, 2009

I'm ok, you're ok (with government kidnapping)

When it comes to violations of human rights and international law, I find the Obama administration's Predator drone attacks inside of Pakistan -- which have killed at least 22 people, including children -- to be graver and much more troubling than the news that Obama is prepared to continue major aspects of the Bush administration's rendition policy. While a person extrajudicially abducted might often be deprived the right to counsel and a trial, at least they and their families aren't usually slaughtered.

That said, on Sunday The Los Angeles Times published a story reporting that President Change was set to continue the Bush (and Clinton) administration's policy of "secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States." Naturally, this elicited outrage from the usual folks, like Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, who declared that "Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for renditions. 

Oh, right -- with a Democrat in power and proper "oversight" in place, rendition isn't considered much of a problem. To his credit, Malinowski did "urge" Obama to give those kidnapped a trial, so clearly there's nothing to worry about here.

Indeed, several top liberal bloggers have insisted there is no controversy concerning renditions under Obama because he has outlawed long-term CIA "black sites" and the use of torture (which I remember President Bush also insisting was U.S. policy). Indicative of the collective cognitive dissonance, Washington Monthly blogger "Hilzoy" made strained attempts to defend the administration an art, suggesting the author of the Times piece was perhaps a bit confused and -- choosing her preferred definition of "rendition", rather than that of the reporter or popular parlance -- speculating that perhaps he was unaware that rendition means "all sorts of perfectly normal things, like extradition, which are not problematic legally."

Of course, if the issue were Obama merely continuing extradition, one doubts the Times would have published the story, as -- and I could be wrong here -- I don't think a single person on the planet thought he would he end a practice engaged in since the formation of the republic. In sum, Hilzoy implies that the Times reporter called all his intelligence and Obama administration sources asking about the new president's rendition policy (meaning extrajudicial abductions), and that they all answered assuming he was talking about extradition instead. Presumably, not once was any attempt made to clarify the terms during the conversation to ensure both speakers were on the same page when discussing controversial counter-terrorism policies.

This, of course, is ludicrous, as constitutional law professor Darren Hutchinson has attempted to point out (the reporter himself has also clarified his meaning of the term in an email to Glenn Grennwald). But rather than accept the reality that in many ways the new boss is a lot like the old one, Hutchinson notes that many liberal Bush critics have sought to downplay their earlier criticism of rendition sans torture, with others outright flipping their positions now that a Good Progressive is in charge. Said liberals, predictably, have denied that any such thing has taken place, with Hilzoy responding by suggesting she has been consistently fine with the U.S. government extrajudicially abducting suspects overseas so long as they're not sent to countries that torture (which is not exactly a point in her favor). 

Meanwhile, and just in time to add to the debate, the ACLU has put out a press release showing that the Obama administration is not only okay with rendition -- extraordinary or not -- but torture as well, at least the kind that took place before January 20th (via Michael J. Smith):
NEW YORK – After the British High Court ruled that evidence of British resident Binyam Mohamed's extraordinary rendition and torture at Guantánamo Bay must remain secret because of threats made by the Bush administration to halt intelligence sharing, the Obama administration told the BBC today in a written statement: "The United States thanks the UK government for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information and preserve the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship that enables both countries to protect their citizens."
In this context, is it really wise for people to simply defer to the administration, and to assume the president will always be angelic and do what's right? Or, perhaps, is it not better to question authority, press Obama to clarify his statements on rendition (and Iran), and not look to him as a leader (or a father figure) to be followed, but as a potentially dangerous criminal who needs to be closely watched? That's not intended as hyperbole, mind you -- if you can't name a major human rights violation or other war crime committed by every president in the last 60 years, then you just don't know your history. With fallible human beings holding unprecedented levels of power, one shouldn't assume those who ascend to the top position in the state will always be Good and Just, and that all day it will rain lollipops and Krispy Kremes. Rather, expect the worst (while doing your best to prevent it), and be surprised if something honorable and decent transpires. It beats being disappointed.

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