Canadian Maher Arar was flying home from Tunisia in 2002 from a family vacation when he was arrested at New York's JFK airport, interrogated, and put on a private jet to Syria, his birth country. He spent the next year under torture in a jail cell 3 feet wide, 6 feet long, and 7 feet high in hopes he would reveal more about his alleged al-Qaeda connection. He apparently knew nothing, and authorities released him without charge.
Since then, Arar has become the poster child of everything that is wrong with the U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition, which usually involves kidnapping a suspected terrorist and moving him to detention-and often torture-in another country. "Since my return to Canada, my physical pain has slowly healed," Arar says. "I have lost confidence in myself and I live in constant fear of flying and being kidnapped again."
Between the questions on waterboarding, surveillance, and what constitutes torture, rendition is another Bush administration counterterrorism tool generating outrage. Since 9/11, some 100 to 150 people have been rendered. The program is now synonymous with CIA "black sites," or secret prisons, and "outsourcing" U.S. torture to notoriously brutal Arab countries like Syria.
But the growing outcry over rendition has sparked emotional coverage that obscures its usefulness. Arar's story became the loose subject of the Hollywood film Rendition, in which Reese Witherspoon fights for her similarly disappeared Egyptian-American husband. PBS' Frontline documentary also devoted a skewed segment this month to the issue, focused only on victims' stories. Arar testified at a congressional hearing last month during which both Republicans and Democrats apologized for his treatment. Still barred U.S. entry, Arar spoke by videoconference.
Lost in the flurry is a look at whether rendition is a valuable intelligence tool when not abused. The practice officially took off in 1995 during Bill Clinton's presidency, not under Bush, as a way to interrupt terrorist plotting. In counterterrorism, says Daniel Benjamin, one of the program's architects, rendition is simply moving a person from one country to another. The idea is to capture a suspected terrorist and have him stand trial in the United States or return him to his home country.
Now a Brookings Institution expert, Benjamin testified with Arar Oct. 18. Rendition is helpful, he said, when a country wants to avoid formal extradition if it might spark a local outcry. Pakistan used it with Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, and Mir Aimal Kasi, who murdered two CIA employees in 1993.
The problem arises when rendition becomes "rendition to torture," Benjamin said. The United States is supposed to gain assurances from countries where it renders suspects that they will not torture. In practice, that may be a pipe dream: Benjamin recommended no renditions to countries like Syria or Egypt who routinely torture. He also said rendition should be used only to disrupt terrorist activity, not gather intelligence, and should not happen where the rule of law functions, as in Europe.
Others say rendition, by having others do our interrogation, is hurting the quality of intelligence the United States receives. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and former CIA specialist, says the debate needs to revert back to whether the United States should torture to get life-saving information in ticking-bomb scenarios.
A week after Arar's congressional testimony, the Bush administration acknowledged for the first time his case had been mishandled. Canada has apologized-noting Arar's rendition came from faulty Canadian information-and paid the software engineer millions of dollars in compensation. Such abuses of rendition have also injured the Bush administration, which may now find the counterterrorism tool-which might save American lives-slipping away.