April 2009: President Obama Expands “Extraordinary renditions program”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sharply criticized the Bush Administration’s extraordinary renditions program—i.e., outsourcing torture. In an article in he wrote in Foreign Affairs, he stated:

“To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of law.” But Obama was consistently careful never to commit to ending the practice of rendition entirely.”

But, as the New York Times reported (May 2009) renditions gained momentum under Obama. (Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetii. U.S. Relies More on Aid of Allies in Terror Cases)

The Case of Raymond Azar, a Lebanese construction manager who was employed by a Lebanon-based contractor that does business with US military in Iraq & Afghanistan is described in detail by Scott Horton* an expert in law and national security issues, in a Huffington Post article. In brief, Azar was seized by “at least eight” heavily armed FBI agents in Kabul, Afghanistan on April 7, 2009. Although he was not even a terror suspect,

“According to papers filed by his lawyers, Azar was threatened, subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and induced to sign a confession. Azar claims he was hooded, stripped naked (while being photographed) and subjected to a “body cavity search.” On a ride to the infamous Bagram air base in Afghanistan — site of the torture-homicides involving U.S. interrogators exposed in the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side — Azar contends that a federal agent pulled a photograph of Azar’s wife and four children from his wallet. Confess that you were bribing the contract officer, the agent allegedly said, or you may “never see them again.” Azar told his lawyers he interpreted that as a threat to do physical harm to his family.”

“Azar alleges that on arriving at Bagram he was shackled to a chair in an office for seven hours      and not allowed to move. Then in the midst of a cold rainstorm he was taken to an unheated metal shipping container converted to use as a cell. The cell was brightly lit and although the outside temperature approached freezing, he was given only a thin blanket. He also claims that he was not permitted to sleep during his confinement at Bagram, which lasted over a day. Then he was told he was going to take a plane trip.”

Azar alleged that he was kidnaped, and forcibly flown to Virginia where he was charged in federal antitrust probe.

“The Justice Department acknowledges the accuracy of many of Azar’s specific claims, but it denies that Azar was ever threatened with a photograph of his family or that he was malnourished. Justice officials heatedly argue that the characterization of these techniques as “torture” is “hyperbolic.”

“The department also insists that the decision to subject Azar to sensory deprivation for the duration of his flight to America was “according to accepted procedure for the transport of prisoners by airplane” and that it was “done solely for the safety of the prisoners and the FBI agents accompanying them.” The decision to use those techniques is attributed to FBI Special Agent Nicholas Zambeck, who heads the Bureau’s hostage rescue and negotiation team in Afghanistan. These procedures–particularly the blindfolding and shackling — correspond to standard Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques, which President Obama declared banned immediately on his arrival in office.”

Renditions have been used in all three previous administrations—H. Bush 41, Clinton, and W. Bush 43 —to avoid formal extradition proceedings for someone wanted on criminal charges.

“But in all three previous administrations, renditions have been considered a rare technique reserved for dangerous terrorists and violent drug kingpins. Azar is at worst a secondary figure in a small-time contract fraud case and is not accused in any way of terrorism. Why such aggressive and dramatic techniques were used in connection with the apprehension of a man suspected of a small-scale white collar crime remains entirely unclear. (Scott Horton. Target Of Obama-Era Rendition Alleges Torture, Huffington Post, May, 2011)

* Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, where he writes on law and national security issues, and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, where he teaches international private law and the law of armed conflict. A life-long human rights advocate, Scott served as counsel to Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, among other activists in the former Soviet Union. Scott recently led a number of studies of issues associated with the conduct of the war on terror, including the introduction of highly coercive interrogation techniques and the program of extraordinary renditions for the New York City Bar Association, where he has chaired several committees, including, most recently, the Committee on International Law. He co-authored a recent study on legal accountability for private military contractors, Private Security Contractors at War. He appeared at an expert witness for the House Judiciary Committee three times in the past two years testifying on the legal status of private military contractors and the program of extraordinary renditions and also testified as an expert on renditions issue before an investigatory commission of the European Parliament.