WASHINGTON – The CIA’s secret prisons are being shuttered. Harsh interrogation techniques are off-limits. And Guantanamo Bay will eventually go back to being a wind-swept naval base in southeastern Cuba.
But even while dismantling these discredited programs, President Barack Obama left an equally controversial counterterrorism tool intact.
Under executive orders issued by Obama last week, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as “renditions,” or the secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said that the rendition program may be poised to play an expanded role going forward because it is the main remaining mechanism – aside from Predator missile strikes – for taking suspected terrorists off the street.
The rendition program became a source of embarrassment for the CIA and a target of international scorn as details emerged in recent years of botched captures, mistaken identities and allegations that prisoners were turned over to countries where they were tortured.
The European Parliament condemned renditions as “an illegal instrument used by the United States.” Prisoners swept up in the program have sued the CIA as well as a subsidiary of the Boeing Co. accused of working with the agency on dozens of rendition flights.
But 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 decision underscores the fact that the battle with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups is far from over and that even if the United States is shutting down the prisons, it is not done taking prisoners.
“Obviously you need to preserve some tools. You still have to go after the bad guys,” said an Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing the legal reasoning. “The legal advisers working on this looked at rendition. It is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice.”
One provision in one of Obama’s orders appears to preserve the CIA’s ability to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects as long as they are not held long-term. The little-noticed provision states that the instructions to close the CIA’s secret prison sites “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.”
Despite concern about rendition, Obama’s prohibition against the use of most other counterterrorism tools could prompt intelligence officers to resort more frequently to the “transitory” technique.
The decision to preserve the program did not draw major protests, even among human rights groups. Leaders of such organizations said that reflects a sense that the United States and other nations need certain tools to combat terrorism.
“Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place” for renditions, said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “What I heard loud and clear from the president’s order was that they want to design a system that doesn’t result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured. But designing that system is going to take some time.”
CIA veterans involved in the rendition program said that it was an important capability, but used mainly for terrorism suspects not valuable enough for the agency itself to keep, and that the program was of limited use in gathering intelligence.
“The reason we did interrogations (ourselves) is because renditions for the most part weren’t very productive,” said a former senior CIA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
The most valuable intelligence on al-Qaida came from prisoners who were in CIA custody and questioned by agency experts, the official said. Once prisoners were turned over to other countries, such as Egypt or Jordan, the agency had limited ability to influence how much intelligence was shared, how prisoners were treated and whether they were later released.
“In some ways, (rendition) is the worst option,” the former official said. “If they are in U.S. hands, you have a lot of checks and balances, medics and lawyers. Once you turn them over to another service, you lose control.”
In his executive order on lawful interrogations, Obama created a task force to re-examine renditions to make sure that they “do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture,” or otherwise circumvent human rights laws and treaties.
The CIA has long maintained that it does not turn prisoners over to other countries without first obtaining assurances that the detainees will not be mistreated.
Even so, the rendition program became a target of fierce criticism during George W. Bush’s presidency as a series of cases surfaced publicly.
In one of the most notorious instances, a German citizen named Khaled El-Masri was arrested in Macedonia in 2003 and whisked away by the CIA to a secret prison in Afghanistan. He was quietly released in Albania five months later after the agency determined it had mistaken El-Masri for an associate of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
El-Masri later described being abducted by “seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks.” He said he was stripped of his clothes, placed in a diaper and blindfolded before being taken aboard a plane in shackles – an account that matches other descriptions of prisoners who were swept up in the rendition program.
In another prominent case, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was abducted in Italy in 2003 and secretly flown to an Egyptian jail, where he said he was tortured.
Defenders of the rendition program point out that it has been an effective tool since the early 1990s and was often used to bring terrorism suspects to courts in the United States. Among them was Ramzi Yousef, who helped orchestrate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and was captured in Pakistan.
Because details on the rendition program are classified, the scale of the program has been a subject of wide-ranging speculation.
An exhaustive investigation by the European Union concluded that the CIA had operated more than 1,200 flights in European airspace after the Sept. 11 attacks. The implication was that most were rendition-related, with some taking suspects to states where they faced torture.
But U.S. intelligence officials contend that the European report greatly exaggerated the scale of the program and that most of the flights documented by the Europeans involved moving supplies or CIA personnel, not prisoners.