The Bush administration, I think it’s fair to say, never tells the truth when
it would be better served by a lie. We saw this when it came to WMDs, of course,
but we’ve also seen it time and time again in the context of fiscal policy –
especially with regard to how much various spending bills are estimated to cost.
So when the New York Times led its flagship Sunday edition with the Bush administration
giving the official take on the fraught subject of rendition, I would have liked
to have seen a certain amount of pushback from the newspaper of record. Instead,
the Times simply caved.
A bit of recent history: in February, the New Yorker ran a magnificent
article by Jane Mayer on the subject of rendition – essentially, the
way in which the USA sends suspected terrorist sympathisers off to nasty regimes
like that of Syria, to get tortured. The title of the piece was "Outsourcing
Torture", and the meticulously-reported story told us not only that what
we had always suspected was true, but that it was actually having a seriously
detrimental effect on the war on terror.
Fast forward to this Sunday, and the Times leading with their impeccable source,
the well-known "senior United States official". Here’s the background,
from the Times story:
The official declined to be named but agreed to discuss the program to rebut
the assertions that the United States used the program to secretly send people
to other countries for the purpose of torture.
The New Yorker article is never mentioned, although its are clearly the "assertions"
which the official was trying to rebut. Immediately, we see two major problems.
Firstly, we have a situation where we’re being asked who we believe: the excellent
(and, no doubt, fact-checked to within an inch of its life) New Yorker story,
or a Bush Administration official who simply asserts abstract "facts"
without providing any specific detail. Already, I’m tending to believe the New
Yorker. But then it turns out that the administration official is insisting
on anonymity: in other words, he (or she) faces zero repercussions whatsoever
if it turns out that everything he was saying was an outright lie.
How and why did the Times decide to make this person the lead story, rather
than insisting that if the Administration wants to put the record straight,
it should do so on the record? Here’s the central assertion, literally incredible
on its face:
The official refused to say how many prisoners had been transferred as part
of the program. But former government officials say that since the Sept. 11
attacks, the C.I.A. has flown 100 to 150 suspected terrorists from one foreign
country to another, including to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan.
Each of those countries has been identified by the State Department as habitually
using torture in its prisons. But the official said that guidelines enforced
within the C.I.A. require that no transfer take place before the receiving
country provides assurances that the prisoner will be treated humanely, and
that United States personnel are assigned to monitor compliance.
"We get assurances, we check on those assurances, and we double-check
on these assurances to make sure that people are being handled properly in
respect to human rights," the official said.
Uh-huh. The US is sending detainees to Syria, and then is so chummy
with the Syrians that it can check and double-check that the detainees are not
being tortured. "The Syrians might torture their prisoners," seems
to be the Administration line here, "and they might be a sworn enemy of
the United States, but we’re sure they’d tell us if they were torturing the
prisoners they got from us."
And, if it’s not to torture the prisoners, why is the US sending them into
these unspeakably gruesome penal systems? Don’t you know, it’s just a question
The transfers were portrayed as an alternative to what American officials
have said is the costly, manpower-intensive process of housing them in the
United States or in American-run facilities in other countries.
Right. Let’s say it costs $100,000 to house a prisoner in Guantanamo.
If the US has subjected 150 individuals to rendition instead, that’s $15 million
"saved". Surely there’s no conceivable way that the CIA-run rendition
program, complete with a Gulfstream private jet, could cost less than $15 million.
Yet the Times lets the anonymous Bush administration official get away with
this insanely implausible assertion, as though anybody believes that the administration
is so concerned by matters fiscal that it will risk sending individuals into
the arms of torturers just to save a couple of million dollars.
One of the central points of the New Yorker article is that the whole rendition
program is counterproductive: information gleaned from tortured individuals
is neither reliable nor admissible in a court of law. So even if a terrorist
confesses under torture that Person X is a mastermind who is planning to blow
up the world, that information can’t be used in the X’s trial, and he might
well end up getting set free – as has already happened in Germany. Hell,
the US won’t even provide its detainees to its own legislature: the Congressional
9/11 Commission tried to talk to them, or at the very least put questions to
them, but wasn’t allowed to by the CIA.
So, on a larger scale, goes it with Administration lies. If the Bushies are
seen to be lying all over the front page of the New York Times, then it becomes
much harder to believe them when it comes to questions such as that of the killing
of Nicola Calipari, the international operations chief of Italy’s military intelligence
Calipari was killed, of course, but two Italians in the car survived, and both
of them strenuously dispute the version of events given by the Americans who
killed him. For once I’m inclined to believe the conspiracy theorists: the Americans
hate it when hostages in Iraq are ransomed, and opened fire on the Italian journalist
quite deliberately. (Eason Jordan, do you feel vindicated now?) No one in Italy
seems to believe the American version of events, and it’s very hard to believe
that sophisticated Italian intelligence officers would behave in the way that
the Americans say the driver of the car behaved. On the other hand, given that
the Americans had only one chance to intercept Giuliana Sgrena between her rescue
and her arrival in Italy, it’s easily conceivable that they took that chance
to try to scupper the deal by force.
If I could think of a single instance where the Bush administration told the
truth despite the fact that they would have been better served with a lie, then
I might be more inclined to believe them this time. But given the cavalier attitude
which they have repeatedly demonstrated both to the truth and to the press,
and given the laughable assertions they made as recently as Sunday on the front
page of the New York Times, I simply have no basis to believe what they say
any more. And I doubt many people in Europe feel any differently.
The USA has simply lost its international credibility, and so long as George
W Bush remains in the White House, I can’t think of any easy way it can get