Throughout the Bush administration, Bush officials — including the president, as you can see here – consistently said that “this government does not torture people.” The Bush administration also promised that it doesn’t send prisoners to be tortured elsewhere.
The Obama administration is now saying the same thing.
Today, it assured reporters in a background briefing with administration officials that although the U.S. government will continue to send terror suspects to foreign countries for interrogation — what has notoriously become known as “rendition” — it will seek assurances from those countries that their interrogators won’t torture the suspects.
Of course, the Bush administration said it sought and received those same assurances. After all, it’s long been illegal, both under U.S. and international law, to send detainees to countries where they’re likely to be tortured. So what’s different now?
“The State Department will play a larger role to ensure that those assurances are credible,” said one senior administration official during the background briefing. (Why the briefing was on background and not for attribution to particular administration officials isn’t clear.)
So, asked Eli Lake of The Washington Times, will the United States simply stop sending suspects to countries that are known to torture suspects, such as Egypt or Syria?
No, the administration is not willing to go that far, a senior administration official said. However, “we will ensure that we have the appropriate assurances in place that gives us strong confidence that the individuals in question will not be tortured.”
The Obama administration is now saying that, unlike the Bush administration before it, it will seek to verify that suspects aren’t being tortured. According to a paper released by the Justice Department today, the task force recommended that “agencies obtaining assurances from foreign countries insist on a monitoring mechanism, or otherwise establish a monitoring mechanism, to ensure consistent, private access to the individual who has been transferred, with minimal advance notice to the detaining government.”
That sounds like an improvement, though having to provide any advance notice to the detaining government is problematic. The policy still, to some extent, allows the U.S. government to trust foreign officials who promise they won’t torture a terror suspect, even if they are officials of a country that is known by the United States to torture terror suspects.
The State Department may play a larger role than it did before, but the new interagency process is ultimately under the control of the president’s National Security Council. That’s better then keeping it a purely CIA function, as it was before. But it still raises the question of why the United States plans to send terror suspects to foreign countries known to torture them, and just how vigorous — and how long-lasting — U.S. monitoring will really be.