The American ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ Program

Extraordinary renditions may have escalated, and given a unique extra-judicial color, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but they are a tactic that preceded the circumstances of the ‘war on terror’.

The US Marshall Service first coined the phrase to describe the procedure of kidnapping fugitives and bringing them to justice in US courts. This become a ‘rendition to justice’ program aimed at those who had been explicitly avoiding the law by hiding out in countries which may not have had extradition treaties with the USA. The goal of this program was always to bring the individual to face trial, complete with the protections of due process, in the US courts.

In the 1980s and 1990s the program grew to include ‘terror’ suspects and under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton the program was expanded to include wanted ‘terrorists’. However, it was, at least until 9/11, always seen as a law enforcement act and all suspects were bought to trial within civilian courts in the USA. But gradually the program was already drifting away from this goal. As individuals who were ‘suspected’ came into its interest it was unclear where they could be taken since they were not fugitives from US law. Eventually this slipped into sending them to a third country for interrogation and trial. All this began happening before the 9/11 attacks and suspects were already being sent by the US to countries like Egypt and imprisoned entirely outside the US legal system.

But 9/11 changed these small changes into a major shift in policy and practice. The ‘war on terror’ led to the program expanding immensely, and operating entirely without any legal constraints, and kidnapped individuals were placed entirely outside any judicial or legal process and protection. A CIA directive issued in September 17 increased the CIA’s powers, including the power to kill, capture or detain individuals suspected of being members of Al-Qaeda anywhere in the world. And soon after, as stated on The Rendition Project website: 

…on 13 November 2001, President Bush issued an Executive Order on the Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism. This Order provided the Pentagon with the authority to detain indefinitely any non-American in the world, in any place in the world, as long as they were determined by the US Government to pose a terrorist threat to US interests. Together with the September 17 2001 memo to the CIA, this Order laid the foundations for the development of a global system of rendition and secret detention, as well as the official military detentions in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The scale and scope of the program is difficult to fathom. A map of rendition flights database, reveals the sheer breath of the program.

But it is estimated that hundreds of people were kidnapped from different countries and flown to places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Libya and Uzbekistan. Estimates for CIA renditions alone run into several hundred. The number grows massively if we include those renditioned to Guantanamo and Bagram. It has to be noted that extraordinary renditions violate international law and the US commitment to non-refoulment (or non-return). That is, the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment (Convention against Torture), a treaty to which the USA is a signatory, prohibits the expelling, return, transfer or extradition of a person to a state where there would be concern of their being in danger of being tortured.

Ironically, this is one of the conditions the USA demands of Pakistan – a guarantee that the state will not torture, when it speaks to the Pakistani state about repatriation of Pakistani prisoners in Bagram. The ironies, double-standards and hypocrisies of asking the Pakistani state to give a ‘no torture and cruel treatment’ guarantee before the repatriation of the very men the USA has been torturing and cruelly treating for years is too obvious to comment on.

Not all torture was outsourced to third countries. The presidential directive that gave birth to the rendition program also approved the setting up of CIA ‘black sites’ or prisons. These sites were located in countries like Poland, Romania and Lithuania. These sites were authorized to be beyong the purvey of the law and served as locations where the most inhumane and cruel interrogation techniques could be used. The use of these techniques was monitored and supervised by CIA lawyers, and individuals from the highest levels in the US government. These ‘black sites’ offered total invisibility, and became the base of what one expert has described as …’the most sophisticated, refined program of torture ever’.

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