How would we feel if clandestine operatives of the government of Germany — or Great Britain, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Israel, China or Japan, for that matter — kidnapped a U.S. citizen, took him to a secret prison, questioned him unremittingly, perhaps including physical abuse, and then dropped him off on a hillside in Mexico after deciding that he wasn’t the fellow they wanted after all? Would we be upset?
That’s pretty close to what American CIA operatives allegedly did to Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent. His story, which German authorities at first refused to believe, would be an instance of what the CIA calls “extraordinary rendition.” It happens when U.S. operatives take somebody suspected of being involved with a terrorist group or a hostile power to some country that has few scruples and fewer laws about torture and either question the subject “aggressively” or hand the job over to the local secret police.
El-Masri was allegedly held — the CIA has never acknowledged any role in the detention — in a secret prison in Afghanistan, then dropped off on a hillside in Albania. He had been seized in Macedonia and was released only when his captors decided — five months later — that he wasn’t involved in terrorism after all.
Is it any wonder that German prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA operatives suspected of being involved in this outrageous undertaking?
It is not expected that those people will ever stand trial in Germany, and the Germans have been sensitive enough not to release the names or other identifying characteristics of those they suspect of participating in the kidnapping. The arrest warrants, rather, will stand as an expression of outrage that a foreign government would do such a thing to a German citizen.
The outrage is justified. Americans should be outraged as well that government employees have committed such acts — the German indictment brands them as criminal, and if the allegations are true they certainly are — in our name and with our tax money.
This is the second European country to issue arrest warrants for CIA operatives. The Italian government has issued warrants for 25 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force officer who are alleged to have kidnapped a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan and sent him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured.
Whether these cases ever get to court or not, they should cause our government to reconsider the practice of extraordinary rendition. To be sure, there are people out there who want to kill Americans, and there may be a rare instance here and there when extraordinary measures might help to protect Americans. But outsourcing torture should not be a common practice.
At stake is much more than whether government agents can squeeze a bit of information out of some terrorist or terrorist sympathizer. It is the kind of country America is and aspires to be. If we abandon our devotion to liberty, due process and respect for the rights of individuals then the terrorists will have won. We will have become what our adversaries claim we are, an oppressive international bully.