Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

The Extraordinary

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Some Things Extraordinary, Some Not

So, on 16 February 2007, there were "events" - North Korea Marks Kim Jong Il's 65th Birthday (or Kim Jong Il Orders Koreans to Celebrate His Birthday, to be more precise). Out here in Hollywood on that date we celebrate the birthday of the late congressman from Palm Springs, and awful singer, Sonny (Salvatore) Bono - born in 1940 and now forever the voice that wakes you on Groundhog Day, should you find yourself in Punxsutawney on the right day. "I Got you, Babe" - a song you're not allowed to forget, as life can sometimes seem to be an endless loop, and can actually turn into one (in the movies).

The big new of the day was, aside from the birthdays, an attempt to break an endless loop, as in this - House Passes Iraq Resolution With 17 Votes From GOP

The House of Representatives actually put itself on record opposing the president's escalation of the war in Iraq - what some call the surge, others call "a reinforcement," and what the Secretary of State persists in calling "an augmentation." 

Was it a stinging rebuke?  Perhaps it was. The final vote on the "nonbinding resolution" was 246-182, with more than a dozen Republicans breaking ranks with their party to vote in favor it.  So it could be thought of as extraordinary - it's not that often that the experts in geopolitics and international relations, most of the military leadership, all of our allies, the voters, and then the congress, tell the president, in the middle of a war, that his approach is just wrong, and won't accomplish anything, and, in fact, will make matters much worse. There may be no precedent.

The text of the House resolution was quite simple -

    Resolved by the House of Representatives ... that (1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and (2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.

The Senate was then scheduled vote on whether to vote on the resolution Saturday.  The vote was not to be on the resolution, of course.  It was a vote on whether such things should ever come up for a vote, and, as the Republicans are filibustering this, sixty votes are needed for cloture - ending the filibuster, or in non-parliamentary terms, having everyone shut up and vote, damn it. There are not sixty votes for cloture, even with a number of key Republicans, afraid of looking foolish - or afraid of looking afraid - breaking ranks. So that's that.  It's dead.

Over at Wonkette - the Washington gossip and snark site - you'll find Traitorous Hippies Pass Anti-American Resolution -

    The House passed the Iraq resolution! And they managed it before we finished working (though not before we started drinking)! Good for them!

    The final vote: 246 to 182 with two Dems voting against one, 17 Republicans voting for it, and one member dead.

    Despite the House getting it done before Steny Hoyer's threatened midnight vote, the Senate will still have to meet tomorrow when no one is paying attention to cast their history-making votes on whether they should or shouldn't vote on maybe expressing polite disapproval.

    Anyway, war should be over in a couple hours now, hope you all enjoyed it.

Well, it is a bit absurd.

The reaction from the White House to the whole business was predictable -

    The House of Representatives has passed a resolution expressing disapproval of President Bush's plan to send reinforcements to Iraq. This plan enjoys the support of the Iraqi government and U.S. military leadership.

    The President believes that the Congress should provide the full funding and flexibility our Armed Forces need to succeed in their mission to protect our country.

Sure, express you opinion - just keep the money coming.  Who cares what you, or what anyone else thinks?

Actually, he might just as well have said something like what Phil Connors, the weatherman in the groundhog movie says - "You want a prediction about the weather? You're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction - It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life."

So it will be.

The big news story was about nothing changing, no matter what anyone wants.  Hope is nice, and disapproval is interesting in its way. Neither is very relevant here.

The actual big news story of the day may have been far different.  It was one of those where a closed loop was actually broken, and things did change.  It was the report of the indictments handed down against twenty-six Americans by an Italian court.  Bush's Italian cheerleader, Silvio Berlusconi, is long gone - tossed out by the voters there - and this became inevitable.  An Italian court in Milan thus indicted the twenty-six Americans for "spiriting away" Egyptian cleric Abu Omar to Egypt, in 2003, where he was "detained" and tortured.  And note this trial will be the first criminal case to tackle the CIA's somewhat controversial practice of extraordinary rendition.  It is clear that the United States will never hand over the agents involved. But some sort of trial will proceed regardless - Italian law allows suspects to be tried in absentia.

Note that in this item we see that German authorities issued arrest warrants for thirteen other American CIA agents on February 1, for the kidnapping of a German citizen - but that trial will not occur unless the accused are present.  The local law is different. Note also that Italy isn't just after the CIA guts - five Italian agents (spooks, spies, whatever) will also be tried in the Milan affair.

There may be no resolution here - as long as the twenty-six don't plan to ever take a European vacation again.  They could be arrested upon arriving in any European Union country. So it's Disneyworld or Vegas from now on for them. The former CIA station chief in Rome suffers more - he had bought himself a villa on the Amalfi Coast, a place to spend his retirement years.  That's been seized until this is resolved. Unlike Gore Vidal, the poor fellow cannot just sell the Italian villa and, like Vidal, move to something similar on Outpost Road here in Hollywood.  That hurts.

There have been some reactions to this - from those not consumed with our congress attempting to express polite disapproval of something they cannot really do anything about.

Here is your basic surprise -

    The fact that there will be a trial, and there will be evidence and testimony about the practices that our government has employed will be a breath of fresh air. Europe is starting to fight back. ... Ironically, Bush's overreach has not intimidated the rest of the world. The disaster in Iraq has exposed him as a paper tiger to those he tried to intimidate, and now they are starting to show their own fangs.

And a note on how we misjudged our allies -

    Turns out, other countries might have a problem with the CIA kidnapping their citizens right off the street with no authorizations or warrants. Of course, nobody actually knows what happens to you once you've been "extraordinarily renditioned" - but we can all assume it involves a prison that nobody's ever heard of and less than amiable guards in a country where nobody asks questions.

And then there's sarcastic humor -

    We're too cool to hang out with mullah-coddling Italians anyway. Our new friends, El Salvador, Georgia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Albania, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Slovenia are way cooler than losers like Italy.

And there was some hoping for more - "Wouldn't it be great if these neocon creeps, and their loathsome henchmen, found their freedom of travel severely curtailed because of the threat of arrest for international crimes?"  But Paul Wolfowitz, for example, now heads the World Bank from the offices there in Paris? Would he have to work from home?

On the pro-Bush conservative side, there's the complaint the press is looking at the wrong thing - "Eventually, someone in the MSM is going to have to take a break from the rendition angle and start asking about why the CIA thought Abu Omar was so important." It's an item arguing that, yeah, we broke the local law and all - but the guy we grabbed must have been very, very bad, or we wouldn't have had to grab him like that.

There are hundreds of views on this whole business - much, much more about these Italian indictments. But what Daniel Benjamin has to say on our rendition practices in probably the most informative - he is the director of the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution, and was on National Security Council staff from 1994-1999 - and he's co-author of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right. He might know a thing or two about all this.

In early February SLATE posted his Rendition at Risk - arguing that "the Bush administration's excesses have endangered a valuable tool."

The idea is that sometimes you have to do such things, but there are ways to do it right.

The framing is this -

    Oscar Wilde's maxim that "Every man kills the thing he loves," has a corollary in the war on terror: The U.S. government seems bent on destroying the friendships and tools we need to protect ourselves. The most obvious case is the alienation of millions of the world's Muslims through the invasion of Iraq. But there are other examples, such as the way we have put at risk key relationships with allies through misguided intelligence operations and endangered one of our most valuable tools, the practice of rendition.

    The point was made again this week when a magistrate in Munich issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA officers in connection with the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, who was abducted in Macedonia in 2004. The German authorities' move follows the lead of an Italian magistrate who is seeking indictments of 25 CIA operatives for the rendition from Milan of an Egyptian radical known as Abu Omar. Then there is Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was boosted while changing planes at Kennedy Airport and eventually sent to Syria, who tortured him before deciding he was not a terrorist.

    As a recent BBC poll pointed out, most countries polled now view the United States as having a negative influence on world events. The rendition-related blunders are undoubtedly greasing that downward slide. They are also raising the specter of a disruption of the network of intelligence and law enforcement agencies currently cooperating on counterterrorism, as angry publics demand that their governments restrict cooperation with the United States. Especially in Europe, this fills senior officials with dread, because they know that the cooperation is the unsung success of the war on terror.

But is rendition actually one of our most valuable tools?  Has there been far too much sloppy reporting in the matter? That's what he claims.

The idea is that all we're talking about is "the movement of a suspect from one country to another outside of the formal and often legally complex process of extradition" - and what we do with terrorists now we used to do with drug kingpins and other criminals.  We're just screwing it up these days.

It's a "got it alone" thing -

    There are two broad categories of rendition: those that are "extraordinary" and those that aren't. What distinguishes one from the other is the role of the government of the country in which the rendition takes place. If the "host government" is not complicit in the rendition - that is, if the individual is essentially being abducted and spirited out of the country without cooperation - the rendition is extraordinary. In the press, renditions are almost always called extraordinary, but, at least before 9/11, extraordinary renditions were extraordinarily rare. (I am aware of only one, and that was in a drug case.) Had we managed to kidnap Osama Bin Laden and smuggle him out of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s against the wishes of Mullah Omar and his men, it would have been an extraordinary rendition.

    There appears to be no public information on the number of extraordinary renditions carried out during the Bush administration, but because the overwhelming majority of the intelligence services in the world are cooperating closely with the United States on counterterrorism, the relative frequency of extraordinary renditions is probably still very low. They are also incredibly hard to do.

So the idea is to cooperate with the host country, and mutually agree to bypass the formal extradition agreements, and just get things done.  We've not worked that way, even if we easily could. We do the extraordinary.

But the "ordinary" is quite simple, and satisfies both countries -

    Of the not-extraordinary renditions, there are also two types: The first brings a suspect from abroad into U.S. custody without going through a formal extradition. If someone is brought to the United States to stand trial for a crime for which U.S. courts have jurisdiction, that's a good thing - it's how we got Ramzi Yousef back from Pakistan after he bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and then plotted to blow up a dozen U.S. passenger jets over the Pacific. The Pakistani authorities decided that Yousef was too hot to hold, because there would be a public outcry if he were incarcerated and held for extradition. So, after the joint operation to arrest him in an Islamabad guest house, they were only too happy to have the United States bundle him onto a plane bound for New York. In 2003, the Pakistanis did the same thing with Ramzi's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks. One can disagree with the administration's decision to shuttle KSM from one secret overseas detention center, or "black site," to another while trying to extract more information from him, rather than bring him to trial. But that is a different question than whether grabbing him abroad is an acceptable practice. U.S. courts have ruled that such renditions are legal, whether they are done with the approval of the "host government" or not.

    In the second type of rendition in this category - the kind that has attracted the most criticism - the United States helps arrange for the transfer of a suspect from the country he is located in to a third country, again without a formal legal process. In these operations before 9/11, the United States typically had intelligence that the individual was genuinely dangerous, but did not have an evidentiary basis for prosecution. The host government usually wants the person in question off its soil because he is involved terrorist activities. The United States, which has probably been in close contact with the host country's intelligence officials, recognizes the problem and checks with the individual's home country or others where he may have lived or whose citizens might have been targeted by his operations. If one of those countries has an arrest warrant or wants to indict, the United States helps arrange and perhaps carry out the transfer. The whole thing is done quietly because the host country officials don't want to be seen by their public as cooperating with the United States. Quite often, those officials are unelected, hated by their country's Islamist opposition, and fear an angry "street."

So one hand washes the other, and each country gets its needs met. It seems to involve listening, understanding and responding to the other party's needs, and working out a win-win solution - and keeping it all quiet, with no public boasting or posturing. No wonder the Bush administration gave that up. It sounds like a Bill Clinton thing.

But it's just cold, utilitarian realism -

    In a perfect world, every country would have democratically elected officials and solid institutions, including a functioning judiciary, and renditions would not be necessary. But renditions reflect the reality that dangerous people turn up with some frequency in countries with inadequate legal systems that need to shield their cooperation with the United States from domestic opposition.

You work with that.  But we said, or actually Vice President Cheney famously said, after 9/11 "the gloves came off" - moral and legal standards just got in the way, and so did the behind the scenes give and take that kept our allies, and quasi-allies, part of the effort -

    In short, rendition has become a dirty word because it is now a shorthand for what some have called "the outsourcing of torture." That was not the case before the Twin Towers were destroyed. Before 9/11, 70 suspected terrorists were rendered, according to former CIA Director George Tenet. These operations were overseen by a small army of lawyers at the CIA and the Defense Department (whose planes were sometimes used) as well as White House officials. A key requirement was that the countries that took custody of the suspects guaranteed to the United States that the individuals would be treated in accordance with international human rights norms. That meant they would not be tortured. U.S. officials also monitored the practices of these countries to ensure those assurances were met.

So it seems those curbs were not in place, for a time. That Canadian fellow - Arar - was transfer to Syria, a country notorious for torture.  Things did change -

    According to CIA officials I've spoken with, the Arar rendition never would have happened before 9/11. ("We didn't do business with those people -it was off the table," was the way one former CIA lawyer put it.)

    As the examples of Abu Omar, Khaled al-Masri, and Arar indicate, the government has also gone too far by rendering people who were located in countries with comprehensive, functioning legal systems.

The take-away idea here - "Rendition was meant to be a remedy for the inadequacies of states that haven't achieved the rule of law, not a shortcut in those that have."

Now the chickens have come home to roost.  We took our shortcuts, and we don't listen to anyone.

Benjamin is concerned we may have now lost a valuable too that realists use.

We've lost far more.

Congress can vote all they want on their opinion of what the president will do anyway, no matter what they think. It hardly matters. Did anyone notice our close allies, Italy and German, have indicted thirty-nine of our CIA folks and wants to put them on trial?  Congress may have no power, but to whine. Someone else is actually doing something.

Now that's extraordinary these days.

This item posted - in its final version - February 18, 2007

[The Extraordinary]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik