Extraordinary Rendition: Where’s the outrage?

In a recent article published about the US supreme court ruling confirming Guantanamo inmates’ right to habeas corpus in the Guardian, George Monbiot links the outrage over their treatment to the lack of outrage concerning what has euphemistically been called extraordinary rendition. (1) In comparison to the outrage over the vision of inmates shackled and in orange jumpsuits, the outrage over the treatment of other prisoners kidnapped through the extraordinary rendition program has been marginal. Even after Taxi to the Dark Side won an Academy Award in 2008 and the Hollywood movie, Rendition was released, major outrage over the program has not been forthcoming.


Monbiot is partly correct to argue that “the public atrocity of Guantanamo Bay has provided a useful distraction from something even worse: the sprawling system of secret detention camps the US runs around the world.” It is true that the focus of many people has on Guantanamo Bay, but there is reason to believe that the lack of outrage points to a wider effort by the US administration to suppress anger over their treatment of prisoners.


Research has shown that powerful groups, in particular governments, can inhibit outrage over unjustified abuses of power by implementing a number of strategies. The backfire model classifies these strategies into five methods: cover-up; devaluation of the target; reinterpretation of the event; official channels; and intimidation and bribery. (2) It is important to note that not all cases require a government to implement all methods, sometimes a cover-up is sufficient, but research has shown that in a number of cases all five methods are used. Importantly, the backfire model does not only identify the methods used by governments, it also allows activists to develop their own strategies for fomenting outrage and achieving positive social change.



The most obvious way in which a government may attempt to inhibit outrage is to cover-up the actual event. If people are unaware that something has happened, they will not become outraged. As is obvious from the extremely secretive nature of extraordinary rendition, the US administration has attempted to ensure that its treatment of prisoners who have been rendered is kept as secret as possible.


Towards the end of 2005, the existence of the extraordinary rendition program began to become public. A report by the Council of Europe was released in mid-2006, and outlined a number of known cases of rendition involving European nationals and nations. (3) Cases in this report are from as far back as 2001 (and also acknowledges the use of the procedure by the Clinton administration in the 1990s), which highlights the length of time that the process was covered-up by the US administration. From just after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the CIA had been kidnapping individuals and secretly transporting them to nations that have been known to use torture in interrogation. It took four years for this to become public, and for these four years, no outrage over the process existed.


To counter any attempts at cover-up it is important to expose the existence over the program. Reports such as that by the Council of Europe and the work of a few journalists around the world has meant that the term ‘extraordinary rendition’ is now known, and has led to more activism aimed at stopping the process. Unfortunately, the US administration has also implemented other methods in the backfire model to ensure that any outrage has been limited.


Devaluing the victim

As with the case of extraordinary rendition, it is often difficult for governments to maintain a cover-up of a major violation of rights, too many people know about it for it to remain a secret. In these cases, governments will move on to the other methods outlined in the backfire model, starting with the devaluation of the victim. The rationale behind such a move is to reduce support for the victim, to change the public’s perspective by pointing out that the victim actually deserved what they received.


In the case of extraordinary rendition, the US administration has continually referred to the victims of extraordinary rendition as terrorists and murderers. Condoleezza Rice, in a statement that she issued in response to inquiries she had received from various European institutions in December 2005 talked about terrorists who had killed thousands of individuals across the world. (4) The intended result of this is to associate those who are rendered with those who attacked New York, Washington, London, Madrid etc., and to thus reduce the support that they receive from the public. Of course, this dismisses the fact that a number of those who have suffered through the rendition program have been found to have no association whatsoever with terrorist organisations (for example, Canadian Maher Arar, who was kidnapped by the CIA and sent to Syria, tortured and held for almost a year before being released).


Reinterpreting the Event

Of course, in a number of instances, just devaluing the victim will not be enough to prevent outrage, in these cases governments may wish to reinterpret what has actually happened. Although some facts about the event have become public, because of a less than successful cover-up, this does not mean that governments will not try to ‘spin’ the facts to better reflect their position.


The use of the term ‘extraordinary rendition’ is itself an attempt to reinterpret the event. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, “to say ‘extraordinary rendition’ is to reveal one’s squeamishness about saying ‘the export of torture.’” (5) Upon hearing the term, many people would have been unaware of what the term meant, and thus not have been as outraged as they would have been if they were aware that it actually meant the outsourcing of torture.


The US administration’s position on extraordinary rendition has been that it does not transport suspects to other countries with the intention of torturing that person. Given the countries to which suspects are transported it is highly doubtful that this is the case, with many of the countries receiving suspects being well known as countries that practice torture.


Official Channels

Many activists often see official channels, such as the judiciary or government investigations to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, this is often not overly successful. In the case of extraordinary rendition, there have been a number of investigations, many of which have unearthed some of the controversies. Regrettably, although truths have been uncovered, none of these investigations have been successful in either stopping the practice or punishing any of those responsible for the program.


Official channels can also be used by government’s to point out that they will punish those who are found to have broken laws. For example, when talking about extraordinary rendition, Rice points out that those soldiers who were found to have mistreated prisoners in Abu Ghraib have been tried and punished. In doing so, Rice implies that anyone who tortures prisoners as part of the extraordinary rendition program will face the same punishment, however, as shown with the trials for those accused of mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, those who have ordered such actions are not punished. The use of the judiciary to punish torturers is often useless, unless all those responsible for the actions are tried and found guilty.


Intimidation and Bribery

The final method used by governments to inhibit outrage is to intimidate or bribe victims, supporters or potential whistleblowers. By either threatening violence or offering rewards for their continued silence, government’s are able to ensure that a cover-up is maintained, or that the truth behind some of the reinterpretation is not revealed.


Intimidation and bribery are the basis of the extraordinary rendition program. Victims are tortured for information they are suspected of possessing. Even if they are found to have absolutely no links with terrorism and are then released, those who have been tortured are unlikely to want to publicise their ordeal, believing that they may again be kidnapped and tortured.


The same is true of supporters and potential whistleblowers. Knowing that speaking out could alienate an administration that is prepared to undertake extraordinary rendition would make both groups of people nervous about doing so. The possibility of being kidnapped and tortured is likely to make people think twice about speaking out.


From this quick survey it is quite obvious that the US administration has undertaken a number of expected strategies to inhibit outrage felt over the practice of extraordinary rendition. Monbiot is correct to point out that the issue of Guantanamo Bay has overshadowed extraordinary rendition, however, he concludes his article by stating, “Like almost everything Bush has done, this programme promises to backfire.” I am not quite as positive: there is potential for the practice of extraordinary rendition to backfire against the US administration, but this will require the work of many people to expose the truth, humanise the victims, correct the mistruths, challenge the official channels and stand up to the intimidation and bribery. Together this can be done, but it is solidarity and support that is central to ensuring that the US administration, under which ever President is in power, discontinues this clear and disturbing violation of basic human rights.


(1)  George Monbiot, “How many innocent people are going out of their minds today?” The Guardian, 17 June 2008. Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/17/usa.humanrights

(2)  The backfire model was developed by Professor Brian Martin at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Previous research has looked at the practicality of the model in a number of case studies, including the US wars in Indochina and Iraq, asylum seekers and Rodney King. For further information on the model, go to http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/pubs/backfire.html. \\

(3)  This report can be seen at http://assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2006/20060606_Ejdoc162006PartII-FINAL.pdf

(4)  http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2005/57602.htm

(5)  Salman Rushdie, ‘Ugly phrase conceals an uglier truth’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 2006.

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