President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for CIA director, Leon Panetta, served as White House chief of staff during the time the Clinton administration accelerated a practice of kidnapping terrorist suspects and sending them to countries with records of torturing prisoners, human rights organizations and former U.S. officials say.
Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will question Mr. Panetta, chief of staff for President Clinton from 1994 to 1997, about what, if any, role he played in shaping the policy known as “extraordinary rendition,” a Republican aide on the committee said. Mr. Panetta’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 27. The aide asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The practice — which involves seizing a terrorist suspect in one country and taking him to another without formal judicial proceedings — also occurred under the administration of President George H.W. Bush and possibly even earlier, said a former senior U.S. official in that administration. However, it took place dozens of times under the Clinton administration and rose dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to human rights organizations and former national security officials.
The issue is particularly relevant given the incoming administration’s pledge to end harsh interrogation practices and what Obama campaign documents referred to as “outsourcing our torture to other countries.”
Mr. Obama told ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that his advisers were reviewing the outgoing Bush administration’s practices on interrogation and detention but that “it is possible for us to keep the American people safe while still adhering to our core values and ideals.” Mr. Obama appears to have passed over other candidates for CIA chief because of their involvement in harsh treatment of detainees and rendition under the Bush administration. In recent writings, Mr. Panetta has strongly opposed such policies.
“What is ironic here, you have the incoming administration basically reaching outside the circle of individuals with direct intelligence experience ostensibly to avoid any taint with any policy the hard left dislikes, which is interrogations and renditions,” said David Rivkin, who was a White House and Justice Department national security lawyer for the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
“Here you have a person who was involved in rendition, at least at the very senior level, in Panetta. The whole thing is silly,” Mr. Rivkin said.
The Obama transition team declined to comment on the issue.
Samuel R. Berger, who was deputy national security adviser in the first Clinton term and national security adviser in the second, also would not comment on Mr. Panetta’s role, apart from praising him as “someone with tremendous integrity who will have the confidence of the president” and who was “a consumer of intelligence at the highest level” when he served Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Obama, in announcing the nomination on Friday, also said that Mr. Panetta had dealt with intelligence in daily briefings “at the very highest levels.”
Extraordinary rendition differs from ordinary rendition, in which foreign terrorist suspects are seized abroad and brought to the United States for trial. That was the case of the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramsey Youssef, who was abducted by the CIA in Pakistan.
Talaat Fuad Qassim, a leader of al-Gamaa Islamiya, the Egyptian jihadist group led by al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, in the 1990s, was subjected to extraordinary rendition.
Snatched in 1995 in Bosnia, Qassim was questioned aboard a U.S. Navy vessel in the Adriatic, then sent to an Egyptian prison, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2005.
Five suspected terrorists in Albania were seized and sent to Egypt in 1998 for interrogation, according to the report. Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have accused Egypt of torturing detainees.
“The Clinton policy in practice meant torture,” Joanne Mariner, counterterrorism director for Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Times. “We haven’t been able to interview the people themselves, but we have evidence that they were tortured.”
Muntassir al-Zayyat, an Egyptian lawyer who represented four of the suspects seized in Albania, told The Times that “all were subjected to torture.”
Two of the suspects — Ahmed Ibrahim al-Naggar and Ahmed Ismail Uthman — were executed in 1999, while two others — Shawky Salama Mostafa and Mohammed Hassan Mahoud — remain in prison, Mr. al-Zayyat said.
The men were suspected of plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and coordinating actions with a cell in Egypt. Mr. al-Zayyat told Human Rights Watch that these suspects were taken to “ghost villas.”
Al-Naggar, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, was blindfolded for most of his nine-month detention. At one point, he was locked in a room for 24 hours with dirty water up to his knees.
During interrogation, his “hands were tied behind his back and his feet were shackled as security agents applied electric shocks to different parts of his body,” the organization said.
Karim Haggag, a spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, declined to comment.
Clinton administration officials have said that in all cases in which suspects were sent to jails in countries with poor human rights records, assurances were sought that they would not be tortured and consular visits were arranged.
“When we sent someone to a place like Saudi Arabia, with questionable practices, we got prior assurance that they would not be tortured and we got consular rights to visit them periodically to make sure they didn’t,” said Richard A. Clarke, counterterrorism czar under Mr. Clinton.
He cited the case of Hani el-Sayegh, a Saudi Shi’ite Muslim who was suspected of involvement in the 1996 bombing at Khobar Towers that killed 19 U.S. airmen. He was handed over to U.S. authorities by Canada in 1997 and sent to Saudi Arabia in 1999.
Other officials said that U.S. leaders knew renditions would lead to torture in some cases.
Michael Scheuer, chief of the CIA unit that tracked Osama bin Laden from 1995 to 1999, told The Times, “The Egyptians were not stupid. When we asked, they would not say they tortured our people. But everyone knew what was going on. The White House must have known.”
A former official for George H.W. Bush said that between a dozen and 20 extraordinary renditions occurred during that administration but that the practice began even before the Reagan administration. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Mr. Clarke told The Times that the practice began under the first President Bush and was authorized by National Security Decision Directive 77.
“President [George H.W.] Bush created the term ‘extraordinary renditions’ in NSDD-77 for instances when the U.S. wanted to arrest someone overseas but could not count on the cooperation of the government of the country where the criminal was present,” Mr. Clarke said. “In those cases the U.S. had to act unilaterally.
“In addition, there would be times when the other government simply wanted to avoid the time-consuming extradition process and would be willing to simply hand over the criminal,” he said.
Mr. Clarke said the Clinton administration brought most suspects back to the United States for trial.
But Daniel Byman, a terrorism specialist at Georgetown University and a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said in Senate testimony on July 26, 2007, that there were more than 70 renditions prior to Sept. 11, but only 20 involved bringing detainees to the United States.
Extraordinary renditions accelerated after 1995, when the Clinton administration directed the CIA to focus on getting senior al Qaeda operatives wanted by U.S. or foreign courts off the streets, according to 2007 House testimony by Mr. Scheuer.
Numbers went even higher after Sept. 11.
A current senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, estimated that at least 400 people have been seized and sent to other countries for interrogation since the Sept. 11 attacks. The figure does not include about 250 prisoners in the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he said.
Mr. Clarke said Mr. Panetta was not in the room when individual cases were discussed.
“Panetta would not have been involved in extraordinary rendition cases, which were handled by [a lower-level interagency panel called the Counterterrorism Security Group], which I chaired,” he said.
Mr. Panetta’s role in setting the overall policy is less clear. Mr. Scheuer, who opposes the Panetta nomination to head the CIA, said, “You can’t have it both ways. If Leon Panetta was involved in national security policies, he is also responsible for the more brutal end of the rendition program. If he was not involved, then there is no reason to believe he is competent to do the job.”
Miss Mariner of Human Rights Watch said that she had no reason to believe that Mr. Panetta played a role in setting the policy.
The Republican Senate intelligence committee aide said lawmakers will want to know whether Mr. Panetta had “knowledge of intelligence activities like rendition. If so, what his role and perspective on those things were.”
Roger Cressey, a former deputy to Mr. Clarke, said the outgoing administration “swept up way too many inconsequential people. The point of extraordinary rendition is that it has to be done only in extreme situations, which are truly life and death for American citizens.”
Mr. Cressey added that the incoming administration “should use rendition as well, but use it in the way it was originally envisioned, as either a tool of last resort, or to bring people back to the United States to stand trial.”
Mr. Scheuer said the practice of interrogating suspected terroristsin U.S. facilities is more humane than sending them to prisons in the developing world. “If you were offered a choice between Guantanamo and a prison in Egypt, what place would you choose?” he asked.