Commentary Magazine


The Following Rendition of . . .

Many on the Left are citing President Obama’s recently signed “Executive Order – Ensuring Lawful Interrogation” as a rejection of the “Bush policy” of extraordinary rendition. Many on the Right see it as evidence of Obama having come to terms with the necessity of extraordinary rendition. It is neither of these. At least not yet.

The January 22 order is a dual-purpose stroke of political genius. On the one hand, it’s a PR stunt allowing the new administration to make the kind of anti-Bush noise it owes liberal voters and upon which it hopes to capitalize in the world media. On the other hand, the document delays any real decision on both extraordinary rendition and the use of interrogation techniques that fall outside the parameters of the Army Field Manual. The executive order is designed to sustain the impression of Barack Obama as bringer of change while leaving room for President Obama, the appreciative beneficiary of President Bush’s tough-minded decisions.

Section 1 of the document is a revocation of George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13440 — which never even mentions rendition. Executive Order 13440 details CIA treatment of non-state enemy combatants with regard to the Geneva Conventions. Why, one might ask, did President Obama not include a refutation of the Bush executive order calling for the rendition of detainees? Well, because the practice of extraordinary rendition began under President Clinton. And there’s not much political value in officially reversing the policies of your Secretary of State’s husband.

President Obama’s “Executive Order — Ensuring Lawful Interrogation” calls for a “Special Interagency Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies”

to study and evaluate the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States and do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control.

That makes it hard to claim that Barack Obama is committed to continuing the program of extraordinary rendition as it is commonly understood. However, a skeptic might note that while President Obama wants to “ensure” that foreign interrogations comply with American standards, George W. Bush was repeatedly “assured” by foreign officials that such interrogations did so.

But the biggest challenge to the claim of a new policy comes with the fact that the task force is also intended to

study and evaluate whether the interrogation practices and techniques in Army Field Manual 2 22.3, when employed by departments or agencies outside the military, provide an appropriate means of acquiring the intelligence necessary to protect the Nation, and, if warranted, to recommend any additional or different guidance for other departments or agencies.

So, President Obama has essentially convened a study group charged with determining whether or not his anti-Bush interrogation furor can be worked into a policy that will keep America safe. The task force will make its recommendations in six months. At that point, people may grouse or cheer as they see fit. But for now, it must be said that no one can procrastinate as dramatically, or to such astounding political effect, as our current president.