Sunday, March 13, 2005

THE U.S. MAY BE VIOLATING local laws in carrying out its policy of renditions. Today's Washington Post reports that officials in several European countries are looking into the possibility that the C.I.A. may have broken laws by kidnapping what the C.I.A. calls "terrorism suspects" on European soil and taking them by force to countries where they are tortured, abused, and mistreated.

A radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was walking to a Milan mosque for noon prayers in February 2003 when he was grabbed on the sidewalk by two men, sprayed in the face with chemicals and stuffed into a van. He hasn't been seen since.

Milan investigators, however, now appear to be close to identifying his kidnappers. Last month, officials showed up at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy and demanded records of any American planes that had flown into or out of the joint U.S.-Italian military installation around the time of the abduction. They also asked for logs of vehicles that had entered the base.

Italian authorities suspect the Egyptian was the target of a CIA-sponsored operation known as rendition, in which terrorism suspects are forcibly taken for interrogation to countries where torture is practiced.

The Italian probe is one of three official investigations that have surfaced in the past year into renditions believed to have taken place in Western Europe. Although the CIA usually carries out the operations with the help or blessing of friendly local intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities in Italy, Germany and Sweden are examining whether U.S. agents may have broken local laws by detaining terrorist suspects on European soil and subjecting them to abuse or maltreatment.

The CIA has kept details of rendition cases a closely guarded secret, but has defended the controversial practice as an effective and legal way to prevent terrorism. Intelligence officials have testified that they have relied on the tactic with greater frequency since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Obviously, the legality of rendition is questionable. Kidnapping is not legal, and neither is torture. I doubt that "We didn't do the torture ourselves; the countries we sent the suspects to did the torture" would be regarded as a legal defense, when the C.I.A. knows perfectly well that the countries these suspects are sent to practice torture routinely.

There's a larger point, too. When, in order to prevent terrorism, our government itself acts in ways that are terroristic, then the line between good guys and bad guys becomes very blurry. The C.I.A. may believe renditions are preventing terrorism (that in itself is an arguable point, given that so many kidnapped suspects have eventually been released without being charged); but what do we then say to people in other countries when they want to know how they can defend themselves against the threat of American terrorism? It must be pretty nerve-wracking to know that you can never be sure when you leave your house that you will come back again.

Those who use the tools of terrorists -- kidnapping, torture, death threats, assassination -- to fight terrorism would be well advised to remember the example of the Star Wars character, Anakin Skywalker. He started out "kind and selfless," with a passion for justice; but he let himself be seduced by the seductive appeal of the Dark Side -- and he became Darth Vader.

No comments: