Beyond this frivolous inquiry, however, the interview covered important terrain. Nevertheless, individuals who carefully scrutinize political news will not find a lot of new information in the discussion, but it is still worth reading.
Obama on Rendition
During Obama's interview with the New York Times, the following exchange concerning rendition occurred:
Q. Leon Panetta has said that we’re going to continue renditions, provided we’re not sending people to countries that torture. Why continue them at all?Analysis
A. Well, I think that you’re giving a slightly more definitive response than Director Panetta provided, but what I’ll say is this: We are now conducting a review of the rendition policy, there could be situations, and I emphasize – could be – because we haven’t made a determination yet, where let’s say we have a well-known Al Qaeda operative, that doesn’t surface very often, appears in a third country, with whom we don’t have an extradition relationship, or would not be willing to prosecute him, but we think is a very dangerous person. I think we will have to think about how do we deal with that scenario in a way that comports with international law and abides by my very clear edict that we don’t torture, and that we ultimately provide anybody that we’re detaining an opportunity through habeas corpus to answer to charges.
How all that sorts itself out is extremely complicated because it’s not just domestic law its also international law, our relationship with various other entities. And so, again, it will take this year to be able to get all of these procedures in place and on the right footing.
I. Obama chided the interviewer for overstating Panetta's position.
Although this is a fair criticism, Panetta strongly indicated during his confirmation hearings that rendition would continue. He said that the government "may very well" transfer individuals to other countries for the purpose of interrogation and that "hopefully" rendition for legal process abroad would also continue. Many press accounts of Panetta's confirmation hearings (see here for example) construed his remarks as indicating that the United States would continue rendition, but that the government would seek diplomatic assurances against torture.
II. Obama would consider rendition of Al Qaeda suspects, so long as international law and his anti-torture rules are followed.
A CIA-sponsored abduction without the consent of the foreign country in which it occurs violates that country's sovereignty. If that country has an extradition treaty with the United States, an unauthorized rendition would invade that country's sovereignty and it could potentially violate the terms of the extradition agreement.
III. Obama states that the U.S. should "ultimately provide" habeas corpus relief to "anybody we are detaining."
This statement conflicts with the Department of Justice position on this issue. DOJ has adhered to the Bush administration's conclusion that detainees at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan do not qualify for habeas corpus relief. Accordingly, the United States is already detaining individuals without affording them access to United States courts. If the CIA abducts terrorism suspects and ultimately transfers them to Bagram, these individuals would not qualify for access to the federal courts under DOJ's analysis.
Furthermore, if the government renders Al Qaeda suspects to officials in other countries, these individuals would not have a right to challenge their detention in United States courts because the transfer would place them beyond the custody and jurisdiction of the United States. Also, the United States could not prevent torture of individuals once they are transferred.
Finally, Attorney General Eric Holder and Solicitor General nominee Elena Kagan have both argued that the government could indefinitely detain suspected members of Al Qaeda as "enemy combatants" because the country is at war with the terrorist organization. This reasoning, together with the government's legal argument concerning Bagram detainees, would support the indefinite detention of and denial of habeas corpus to Al Qaeda suspects who are captured through rendition and subsequently held by the United States at Bagram, as opposed to a CIA black site.
The Obama administration has indicated that rendition will continue and that it, like Bush, will not utilize rendition to torture. Obama's executive orders close CIA black sites, but they do not close other United States-run facilities, such as Bagram, which can (and already) house terrorism suspects. Because the administration has claimed legal authority to deny habeas corpus relief to Bagram detainees and to detain indefinitely Al Qaeda suspects, Bagram could become the functional equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.
Rendition raises very strong issues concerning a country's sovereignty and an individual's right to a fair process and freedom from torture. For this reason, some human rights activists believe that the CIA must abandon the practice altogether. Many liberals strained to parse the differences between "good" rendition and "bad" extraordinary rendition once it became clear that Obama would continue the practice. Some liberal commentators who initially defended Obama's rendition plans, however, have begun to question the practice (see, e.g., statement of Glenn Greenwald).
Marjorie Cohn, a law professor and human rights advocate, complicates liberal efforts to distinguish the two types of rendition in her persuasive essay which concludes that: "There a slippery slope between ordinary rendition and extraordinary rendition." President Obama's recent comments regarding rendition are very careful, ambiguous and tentative. Rendition, however, raises serious questions that the government and the public must continue to scrutinize and debate.