Conservatives have been hearing about Abu Ghraib for three weeks now, and they've had just about enough. To hear them tell it, the media is taking one isolated, unfortunate event and using it to undermine the military, the Bush administration, and American morale. They're tired of introspecting and apologizing, and they want to refocus on the real bad guys. As Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol put it on Fox News this Sunday, "We've got to win this war. And it is insane for this country to be obsessing about a small prisoner-abuse scandal."
The problem is that the conservative insistence that the Abu Ghraib abuse was isolated or "small" is more a statement of faith than of fact. In recent days, The New Yorker and Newsweek have alleged that top Pentagon officials authorized interrogators to terrify and humiliate high-value detainees throughout the international prison system the United States established after September 11. If the right wants to defend this policy, which the Red Cross called "tantamount to torture," that's one thing. But it can't just demand that the media change the subject.
One reason it can't is that a Canadian inquiry is about to draw attention to another kind of U.S. complicity in torture. On September 26, 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria, was flying home to Montreal from a family trip to Tunisia. During a stopover at New York's JFK Airport, he was detained by American immigration officials, who questioned him about connections to al Qaeda, then threw him into Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center. Two weeks later, he was flown to Washington and then to Amman, where, he claims, the Jordanians "blindfolded and chained me, and put me in a van.... Every time I tried to talk, they beat me." Hours later, he was transferred again, this time to Syria. The Syrians placed him in a nearly pitch-black, three-by-six cell. Periodically, they beat him with an electrical cable and threatened him with electric shocks and a device called "the metal chair," which stretches the spine. During one such session, he confessed to attending an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan (a confession he now disavows). Ten months later, he was released back to Canada, where he has not been charged with any crime. Next month, the Canadian government will launch an inquiry into the case, which has garnered front-page coverage north of the border.
The inquiry will spotlight a policy called "extraordinary rendition," in which the United States hands suspected terrorists over to authoritarian Muslim regimes. American officials say those regimes are better culturally equipped to elicit information from suspected Islamic militants. But there is little doubt that one of their primary "cultural" tools is torture. As one American official told The Washington Post's Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, who broke the "rendition" story in December 2002, "We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them."
The policy seems to have begun in the 1990s. According to George Tenet, the CIA took part in over 70 renditions before September 11. No one knows how many have occurred since, as Congress is not notified about individual cases. But the practice has probably increased. According to the Post, the Clinton administration stopped sending suspected terrorists to Egypt after repeatedly complaining about Cairo's brutal interrogation methods. "You can be sure," said one Bush administration official of such human rights complaints, "that we are not spending a lot of time on that now."
The United States usually hands over lower-level al Qaeda captives, keeping the key suspects for itself. The most common destinations are Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, although suspects have also been sent to Syria, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia. In January 2002, for instance, Indonesian authorities picked up Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni on CIA intelligence that he assisted shoe-bomber Richard Reid in his plot to blow up an American Airlines flight. Madni was put on a U.S.-registered jet and flown to Egypt. In October 2001, Pakistani authorities picked up Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, a Yemeni linked to the attack on the USS Cole. A U.S.-registered plane took him to Jordan. Perhaps the Egyptians and Jordanians promised the United States they would not employ torture, as Syria reportedly did in the Arar case. But it's hard to imagine the United States believed them. After all, the State Department has condemned Jordan for "methods of torture," such as "beatings on the soles of the feet" and "prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions." It has noted that "[t]he [Egyptian] security forces continued to mistreat and torture prisoners." And it has accused Damascus of "administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; [and] forcing objects into the rectum." The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the United States has signed, prohibits sending a suspect to a country "where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
In the wake of Abu Ghraib, Americans may find the rendition policy less shocking. It's harder to be outraged by torture in Egypt when we do it ourselves. But, when the United States does the torturing, we can at least investigate the abuses and try, as a democracy, to pass new rules to make sure they do not happen again. When we outsource the torture to our authoritarian allies, there is no such democratic remedy, and thus no way to show that we are fundamentally different from our enemies.
Rendition, ironically, is a form of multilateralism, a kind of dark international cooperation from an administration often criticized for not cooperating enough. But, in this case, the Bushies need to remember the value of democratic unilateralism. As this administration has frequently noted, see-no-evil alliances with tyrannical Arab allies have helped earn the United States the enmity of billions throughout the Muslim world. And yet, by shipping those allies our prisoners, we are associating ourselves even further with the very behavior that breeds such hatred.
Perhaps President Bush really believes the United States will lose the war on terrorism unless it relies on the brutality of friendly Arab governments. But that would be surprising, since he has so clearly said that, unless we divorce ourselves from that brutality, we can't possibly win.
Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.
By Peter Beinart