Wednesday, 31 January 2007

'24' and the Scandal of Extraordinary Rendition

I first heard about what we now know is euphemistically called 'extraordinary rendition' about three or four years ago in the T.V. show '24'; I presumed it was an example of creative license, just like the C.T.U. (Counter Terrorist Unit) for whom Jack Bauer worked. I was very disturbed to discover I was wrong.

In the past week, this practice has hit the headlines again, with a Canadian man receiving a pay-out of US$9 million from the Canadian government because it passed on faulty information that led to him being effectively kidnapped by U.S. authorities, sent to Syria (from where he originally hailed) and there tortured and imprisoned for a year without trial.

Similarly, a German court has issued a writ for the arrest of a number of C.I.A. agents involved in the kidnapping of a German-Lebanese man who was kidnapped in Macedonia and shipped off to Afghanistan to be abused for 5 months before being released in Albania. (You'd think they'd at least have the courtesy to drop him off where they picked him up.)

I have to admit to being a fan of '24' - though I could never watch it on T.V. as opposed to D.V.D. because it is too gripping: I don't think I could wait a week for the next episode, and very often I sneak in 'just one more' episode before I go to bed. But there is something about '24' that bothers me; simply put, it feeds the 'terrorist death-cult paranoia' that leads to things like the Roller Dome in Fort Wayne being put on a list of Indiana's some 8000 (!) potential terrorist targets. And while I know there is a degree of pork-barrelling going on there (more potential terrorist targets=more federal funding), the fact is that the chances of being in a terrorist attack are tiny; however, the fear of terrorism that such actions generate actually mean the terrorists are winning.

Too much of what is sometimes called 'asymmetric warfare' is broadly labeled 'terrorism'. But terrorism is not simply random acts of violence by non-state groups. As the word implies, it is designed to instill fear or terror; and for that to be effective the threat doesn't have to be real or present, you just have to be scared.

So, to return to my original point, extraordinary rendition is a form of torture, and a form of terrorism. The concept that the C.I.A. can pick up whoever they want and whisk them away to Crap-knows-where-istan to have God-knows-what done to them scares me; maybe it's meant to scare the terrorists too, but I doubt it.

What's more it angers me - particularly the suspicion that this wretched government acquiesced in it.

This is an issue that the Liberal Democrats should be banging on about more, for it stands right at the heart of what we represent as a party (as Martin Kettle graciously pointed out yesterday - see above).

Come on Ming - make some noise!

A Whiff of Watergate? More Like a Pinch of Plame...

As Peter at Liberal Review has pointed out, over on Comment Is Free Martin Kettle has been questioning Ed Davey's assertion that the ongoing investigation into the 'Cash for Coronets' (© Andrew Rawnsley) affair has a "whiff of Watergate" about it. Martin Kettle asserts, rightly in my view, that one must be careful in making judgment before due process has been allowed to take its course. He is right, of course, that "The dynamic of the Watergate affair was the process whereby that clear-cut crime was linked to President Nixon and his subordinates and their attempts to cover-up their involvement." Thus far, no crime has been proven, and commentators should take care not to besmirch the names of those who are currently innocent in the eyes of the law: Tony Blair no less than anyone else.

To my mind, however, the Valerie Plame Affair appears to be a much more relevant point of comparison, if one is needed. In this incident ('Plamegate', as convention now dictates any political scandal must be called) senior White House officials leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in order to undermine the contention of her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, that the Bush administration had knowingly made the false assertion that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase yellow-cake uranium from Niger.

Even during Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, it was argued back and forth whether a crime had actually taken place, since in the eyes of some it was the prerogative of the executive to declassify information that was formerly classified (somewhat reminiscent of Nixon's "If the President does it, it's legal" argument). Despite having discovered that Bush advisor Karl Rove and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Dick Cheney staffer Scooter Libby were all sources behind the leak, none of the men was charged. Why? Because, Fitzgerald alleges, his investigation was obstructed.

So now I. "Scooter" Lewis Libby stands trial, accused of perjury. Libby, the prosecutor alleges, lied to a grand jury investigating the original allegations, and impeded his investigation. Fitzgerald compared it to a baseball player kicking dust in the face of the referee so he couldn't make a fair call on a foul.

The point no longer becomes whether there was a foul or not, but the actions of the player kicking the dust.

This is where Martin Kettle is wrong, and where Lord Levy should be worried.

Even if he and the others under investigation by the police stayed just on the right side of the law in the cash for coronets affair, but did not co-operate fully with the investigation, then whether peerages were sold or not loses significance.

Did Levy kick dust in the eyes of the ref?

In another political era, Tony Blair might have been able to withstand Levy being charged with perverting the course of justice so long as there are no actual charges brought for the selling of peerages, just as Dick Cheney remained safe in his job since no-one was charged with leaking classified information.

But we are where we are: and that means that any charges against "Scooter" Levy will spell the end of Tony Blair.