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Outsourcing Torture

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If you want to see the bare essence of the Bush administration, behold its policy of “rendition.” The innocuous-sounding word signifies a policy under which American officials send terrorist suspects — detainees never convicted of crimes — to countries where they will be tortured, keeping the U.S. government’s hands clean of the monstrous treatment.

Can anyone with a sense of justice or humane bone in his body defend such a shameful policy?

The knee-jerk Bush defenders will brand as squeamish anyone who shrinks from rough treatment of terrorists. There are many responses to this, but the most relevant here is that the people we are talking about are suspects, not proven criminals.

Take the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen. Details of his case, compiled in a 1,200-page report by a Canadian commission that looked into the matter, were reported recently by the New York Times.

In 2002 the U.S. government detained Arar after receiving information from Canadian law enforcement that he had links to terrorists. But almost immediately afterward the Canadians told their American counterparts the information was wrong: no evidence tied Arar to al-Qaeda. The Canadian authorities offered to keep an eye on him when he returned to Canada, but the American officials were already arranging to send Arar to Syria, a country known to torture prisoners, on grounds that “Mr. Arar is a member of a foreign terrorist organization, to wit, Al Qaeda.” Arar is a Syrian as well as a Canadian citizen. The Canadians did not learn that Arar had been sent to a Syrian prison until two weeks later.

“Mr. Arar spent 10 months in the custody of Syrian interrogators who beat him repeatedly with a heavy metal cable and held him in a dank cell scarcely larger than a coffin, according to the commission report. In October 2003, he was released and returned to his wife and children in Canada,” the Times reported.

The Bush administration refused to cooperate with the Canadian commission. According to the Times, “A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, Tasia Scolinos, said that she could not respond in detail to the commission’s findings but that the United States government ‘removed Mr. Arar in full compliance with the law and all applicable international treaties and conventions.’ She also said the government ‘sought assurances with respect to Mr. Arar’s treatment’ in Syria.”

Arar, 37, is suing the U.S. government and demanding an account of it actions.

Let’s step back. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, the U.S. government secretly sent a young man to a country known for torturing prisoners. But have no fear: the government “sought assurances” about his treatment in Syria — what kind of assurances? This is the same Syria with whom the U.S. government refused to speak during the recent Israel-Lebanon war. Bush will outsource torture to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but that is the extent of the diplomatic relationship. This is all said to have been done according to law.

Could anything be more morally outrageous? The Bush administration has held mere suspects in secret prisons, tortured them, and sent some to hell-hole prisons in foreign lands. We know at least some of them are innocent victims. It’s now working with Congress to obtain broader authority to torture detainees and to declare anyone an “unlawful combatant,” thereby depriving him of time-honored rights against oppression.

This is America under George W. Bush. It’s not the America we learned about growing up. Something has gone badly wrong. When will we do something about it?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.