When President George W. Bush launched the “war on terror” in the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, he famously defined the enemy as “terrorist groups of global reach.” But an important report released February 5 by the Open Society Justice Initiative shows that a central element of the Bush administration’s response was itself to spread terror—on a global scale. The report, “Globalizing Torture,” reveals that while the United States was the progenitor of the CIA program that abducted, rendered, disappeared and tortured terror suspects, at least fifty-four other nations are implicated in the program. The report, the most comprehensive to date on the rendition program, names names—from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—and calls for the accountability that has thus far been almost entirely missing.
Some nations, such as Poland and Thailand, allowed the CIA to establish secret prisons, or “black sites,” on their territory. Some, like Syria, Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt, tortured suspects the CIA rendered to them. Some, like Macedonia, Georgia and Sweden, delivered suspects to the CIA, essentially handing them over to be tortured. Some, like Canada and Britain, provided intelligence that the CIA then used to capture, render or interrogate suspects. Some, like Germany and Britain, participated in the interrogations themselves. Many, including Belgium, Iceland, Greece and Denmark, allowed rendition flights to use their airports and airspace. And nearly all have failed to conduct serious investigations of their complicity in the US turn to the dark side.
What are we to make of these worldwide tentacles of the extraordinary rendition program? The involvement of so many other nations in a program that, once it became public, was almost universally condemned suggests that hypocrisy is not the exclusive domain of Bush officials (who claimed they did not “torture” even as they secretly authorized Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be waterboarded 183 times). The widespread global condemnation of the rendition program voiced by other countries, it turns out, often masked quiet support for the program by those very same countries. It almost seems as if the United States affirmatively sought to implicate as many other nations as possible, to reduce the likelihood that anyone would call it out.
On the one hand, the extensive involvement of so many other nations in the CIA program suggests that the challenge of upholding human rights is even greater than we might have imagined. But on the other hand, these international entanglements also suggest a way forward. Many of these nations have their own accountability mechanisms. Some are answerable as well to transnational institutions like the European Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The complicity of fifty-four nations means there could be at least fifty-four routes to pursuing accountability for the wrongs committed by the CIA and its collaborators.
In December, the European Court of Human Rights provided a critically important example. In El-Masri v. Macedonia, the court ruled that Macedonia had violated the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibitions on torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary detention by handing Khaled El-Masri to the CIA, which rendered him to Afghanistan and tortured him. Macedonia did not do the torturing itself; the CIA did. But the court held that transferring El-Masri to the CIA under such circumstances amounted to complicity in torture and ordered Macedonia to pay damages. The European Court has no jurisdiction over the United States, and therefore could not issue a remedy against it; but it did find expressly that the CIA tortured El-Masri, a predicate to its finding of Macedonia’s complicity.
Thus far, only one of the fifty-four nations has admitted its culpability. In 2004, Canada established a commission to examine its role in the US rendition of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, to Syria, where the security services tortured him while posing the same questions to him that US authorities had. The Canadian commission exonerated Arar and found Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police at fault for providing misinformation, among other things. The Canadian Parliament formally apologized, and Arar was paid damages.
No other state has admitted complicity, although Britain, Sweden and Australia have settled lawsuits asserting such liability. But the Macedonian case points the way to similar actions. And each time another country is held responsible, the finding also implicates the United States.
These indirect efforts to pursue accountability are necessary not only because so many nations violated their most fundamental commitments, but also because the United States has so far blocked all efforts at accountability at home. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have both admitted to authorizing waterboarding, a form of torture, and memorandums declassified by the Obama administration show that high-level lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel twisted the law to authorize these war crimes. Yet none of these individuals have been subjected to criminal investigation, much less prosecuted. All civil suits for redress have been dismissed, mostly on assertions of state secrets. The Justice Department’s ethics office recommended that John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the lawyers who wrote the first torture memos, be referred for bar discipline, but a Justice Department official vetoed that recommendation. And President Obama has opposed even establishing a commission of inquiry.
There is still one domestic forum that could in theory provide some opportunity for accountability—but not if the government can help it. The defendants in the military trials currently under way at Guantánamo were victims of the CIA’s rendition and interrogation program, and they have properly sought to raise that issue in their trials. The United States has responded by classifying the detainees’ accounts of their mistreatment and barring them and their lawyers from discussing the abuse in public. The government has installed special technology in the courtroom so that it can cut off the trial’s audio feed to the media and outside observers if the CIA’s treatment of detainees is even mentioned. In January, it emerged that the CIA was operating the switch, unbeknownst even to the military judge presiding over the trial. The judge has now asserted sole authority to turn off the microphones. But the fundamental issue is not who should turn the microphones off and on. It is that the United States is unable to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, even as it seeks to hold those who acted against us accountable for theirs.
The United States may be able to suppress complaints at home, but it lacks the power to exercise such censorship abroad. The only fitting response to the globalization of torture is the globalization of accountability.
In Books & the Arts this week, Samuel Moyn explains how the work of literary critic Elaine Scarry became the proxy for our preoccupation with the horrors of torture.