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War on terror tactics

War on Terror | President Obama and the treatment of terrorist suspects

U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order Feb. 1 approving the continued use of renditions by the CIA. The order seems to go against Obama's campaign promises to improve the image of the United States abroad, as renditions under the Bush administration had drawn criticism worldwide, especially from members of the European Union. The executive order does not necessarily mean that renditions and other tactics for dealing with terrorist suspects will proceed unchanged, however.

Obama came into office promising changes in the way the United States combats terrorism. One of these changes was a new emphasis on legal processes and a shift away from controversial methods of treating terrorist suspects, like rendition, harsh interrogation techniques, and secret prisons. The Obama administration can and will roll back some of these tactics, as demonstrated by the president's Jan. 22 order to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. But some will continue.

Renditions and the legal process

Renditions are a powerful tool for counterterrorism operations. They involve agents moving into a foreign country to execute a warrant. Once the fugitive is located, agents track, seize, and transport him out of the country for interrogations, or to stand trial, as in the cases of Lebanese hijacker Fawaz Younis, CIA shooter Mir Amal Kanzi, 1993 World Trade Center bombers Abdel Basit (aka Ramzi Yousef) and Mahmud Abouhalima, and even Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka Carlos the Jackal).

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Some of the individuals targeted for renditions have warrants out for their arrest, but are taking refuge in countries that either lack the law enforcement capability to capture them or cannot arrest and extradite them for political reasons. By contrast, the renditions where there is no indictment or warrant and where the suspect is transported to a secret prison for interrogation and detention without a public trial are far more controversial. Renditions of either kind virtually always occur with the knowledge of the host country, and usually with the host government's express consent. (Few countries wish to shelter suspected terrorist masterminds.)

Renditions thus involve legal questions as much as they do diplomatic questions. Before renditions can be carried out, the Washington bureaucracy kicks into full swing. The U.S. State Department must consider the diplomatic ramifications. The ambassador in the host country must consider his or her position and judge the response of his or her contacts in the host country government. The U.S. Justice Department must also sign on. Finally, the agency in charge of actually nabbing the suspect must be willing to work within any restrictions imposed by any one of the many individuals who must approve the operation.

Even when the government ultimately deems a rendition operation legal, numerous factors can still stymie the effort (not least of which is that by the time all the necessary approvals have been obtained, the window of opportunity to nab the suspect might have closed). So while Obama's executive order in theory permits renditions, it is only one part of the whole process; the appropriate members of Obama's administration must also be on board.

Many members of the Obama administration also served in the Clinton administration, which was widely seen as considering all legal ramifications of potential renditions before taking any action. As a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, new Attorney General Eric Holder enjoyed a reputation for deliberating on renditions to the point of inaction-effectively vetoing such operations.

While an appearance of greater attention to the law might come as a relief to many, actors in the field do not have the luxury of endless deliberation and total consensus-they have a narrow window of opportunity in which to act on perishable intelligence. Assuming that Obama's administration acts with deliberation and pursues consensus building (as he himself has emphasized, and has demonstrated in the bipartisan nature of his Cabinet selections), the legality of renditions might become moot if they are not agreed upon in a timely manner. There is a fine line to walk between efficiency and legality in this field, with extremes on either side being detrimental to national security.

By their very nature, renditions are ad hoc and rarely fit into a nice, clean process, something that explains their controversial nature. They frequently occur in countries allied to the United States, meaning the practice falls outside the scope of war. And renditions resulting in suspects' standing trial are far less controversial than those involving secret prisons, harsh interrogation tactics and reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations-tactics disfavored by the Obama administration.


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