Torture is immoral and illegal, and the refusal to allow cruel interrogation techniques is one measure of a civilized society. But this ironclad moral argument doesn’t necessarily apply to the practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

Rendition is the CIA’s antiseptic term for its practice of sending captured terrorist suspects to other countries for interrogation. Because some of those countries torture prisoners — and because some of the suspected terrorists “rendered” by the CIA say they were in fact tortured — the debate has tended to lump rendition and torture together. The implication is that the CIA is sending people to Egypt, Jordan or other Middle Eastern countries because they can be tortured there and coerced into providing information they wouldn’t give up otherwise.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the CIA believes that torture works. But in 30 years of writing about intelligence, I’ve never encountered a spook who didn’t realize that torture is usually counterproductive. Professional intelligence officers know that prisoners will confess to anything under intense pain. Information obtained through torture thus tends to be unreliable, in addition to being immoral.

The unreliability of torture as an interrogation technique was conveyed powerfully by Jane Mayer in an article in the New Yorker last month. She cited the case of a Syrian-born terrorist suspect named Maher Arar, who was seized at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in September 2002 as he was traveling back to his home in Canada. He was then sent to Syria under the CIA’s program of “extraordinary rendition” and, by his account, whipped repeatedly on the hands with two-inch-thick electrical cables.

“Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say,” wrote Mayer. She quoted Arar as explaining his false confession this way: “You just give up. You become like an animal.”

The Syrians eventually concluded that Arar was innocent. He was released without charges. Such stories rightly shock the conscience, and they make you wonder how anyone could ever advocate rendition. But in conversations over the past several years with senior CIA officials and the heads of several Arab intelligence services, I’ve heard explanations for why the practice is used. These arguments for rendition at least ought to be understood as Congress and the public struggle with the moral issues involved”¦


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