Obama's Criticism of Syria Overlooks US Abuse of Rights
February 21, 2012
Bob Egelko / San Francisco Chronicle
President Obama has been calling since last summer for the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have massacred thousands of opponents. In his State of the Union speech, Obama said Assad's regime "will soon discover that … human dignity can't be denied." But it's been a different story in court, where the Obama administration has fended off suits by foreigners who were seized by US agents and sent abroad for brutal interrogation -- in one case, to Assad's Syria.
Obama's Stance on Rendition Different for Lawsuits
Bob Egelko / San Francisco Chronicle
(February 19, 2012) -- President Obama has been calling since last summer for the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have massacred thousands of opponents. In his State of the Union speech January 24, Obama said Assad's regime "will soon discover that … human dignity can't be denied."
But it's been a different story in court, where the Obama administration has fended off suits by foreigners who were seized by US agents and sent abroad for brutal interrogation -- in one case, to Assad's Syria.
The program was known as extraordinary rendition. Alleged terror suspects, mostly captured in foreign countries, were flown either to secret CIA prisons or to other nations, often those with a history of torturing prisoners.
Some of those nations' leaders are the same autocrats Obama has targeted in his recent campaign to align the United States with popular uprisings in the Middle East. Critics of his stance in the rendition cases say he's undercutting his own message.
Protesters in Syria, Morocco, Egypt and other Mideast nations are aware of "the gap between US rhetoric about human rights and its cooperation with torture regimes," said Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in one of the rendition suits.
President George W. Bush, who greatly expanded the use of rendition, said captives were sent only to nations that had assured the United States they would be treated humanely. His administration said it wasn't responsible for any mistreatment they may have suffered after rendition.
Human Rights Progress
Obama, in his first month in office, promised to eliminate abuses in the program but did not disavow use of rendition. He renounced torture by US interrogators, ordered that secret CIA prisons be closed, and issued an executive order saying prisoners could not be sent to countries where they would be tortured, though he hasn't specified how that condition would be enforced.
Rendition is "one of the areas where Obama had made the clearest progress (in reforming the program), but there's been no action on accountability," said Joe "Chip" Pitts, a Stanford law school lecturer and former chairman of Amnesty International USA.
Obama's Justice Department has opposed lawsuits against US officials for torture during past renditions, arguing that the cases -- all of which have been dismissed without trial -- would expose state secrets if allowed to proceed.
The Obama administration first stated its position in a San Francisco courtroom, where five men accused Jeppesen Dataplan, a San Jose flight-planning company, of helping the CIA transport them to foreign countries where they were tortured during Bush's administration.
Sweden's government later paid one of the men, Ahmed Agiza, $450,000 for its role in his rendition to Egypt. Jeppesen has not commented on its work for the government, but a 2007 Council of Europe report described the company as the CIA's aviation services provider, and an employee quoted a director as saying in 2006 that Jeppesen handled the CIA's "torture flights."
At a federal appeals court hearing in February 2009, an Obama administration lawyer echoed previous Justice Department arguments that the case was too hot for courts to handle, warning that "judges shouldn't play with fire." The court later ordered the suit dismissed, and the Supreme Court denied review.
It was the same story for Maher Arar, a Syrian-born software engineer and Canadian citizen who was seized by US agents at New York's JFK Airport in October 2002 based on information from Canadian police that he belonged to al Qaeda.
After nearly two weeks of detention and questioning, he was sent to Syria, despite a US intelligence board's prediction that he would probably be tortured there. Arar said he was held for a year in a coffin-size cell and viciously beaten with an electric cable during interrogations.
After his release, Canada investigated his case, acknowledged that its police had falsely accused him of terrorist connections, apologized and paid him $10 million.
The United States has denied mistreating Arar and has barred him from entering the country. The Justice Department -- the Bush administration in lower courts, Obama in the Supreme Court -- won dismissal of his lawsuit, arguing that it would interfere with foreign policy and damage national security.
When Obama started calling for leadership change in Syria, some critics brought up the Arar case. One was San Diego attorney Chad Austin, who said in a Jan. 27 blog on the Mondoweiss website that Obama wasn't so eager to renounce Assad's human-rights abuses when they served the rendition program.
The White House would not comment on whether its position on rendition has undermined its support for Arab Spring protesters. Other foreign policy commentators offered mixed views.
Pitts, the Stanford law instructor and former Amnesty International leader, said Obama's opposition to lawsuits for rendition abuses has affected other nations' "perceptions of our stature and our moral legitimacy" and has made some US allies reluctant to extradite terrorist suspects to this country.
But Allen Weiner, a former State Department lawyer who directs Stanford's International and Comparative Law program, said the brutality of some rendition cases should not prevent the United States from condemning abuses elsewhere.
"I'm not an apologist for what happened to Arar," Weiner said. "But it does not follow that if the US record on human-rights issues is imperfect, that we are muzzled and lose the ability to criticize other countries for (abuses on) an entirely different scale."
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) 2012 Hearst Communications Inc.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.