IT IS NOT KNOWN, and may never be, what benefit to U.S. security resulted from the reported CIA seizure of a radical Egyptian cleric on a street in Milan in 2003 and his delivery to Cairo for detention in an Egyptian prison. But the price of the extraordinary operation is all too apparent: from the more than $100,000 some 18 operatives allegedly blew on luxury hotels to the kidnapping charges an Italian prosecutor has brought against 13 of them, to the understandable uproar in Italy and the damage it could cause to future Italian-American cooperation in the war on terrorism. Was the sudden disappearance of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr and any intelligence it yielded -- allegedly under torture so severe that he lost hearing in one ear -- worth it? It's hard to believe so, especially since Italian authorities are telling journalists that the Bush administration had an workable alternative to its lawless behavior: allowing the security services of a close NATO ally to complete their own legal operation against Mr. Nasr and his associates.
The botched Italian job is but one example of how the CIA's greatly expanded use of the extralegal practice of "rendition" since 2001 has caused collateral damage to U.S. interests. The repeated and extensive exposure of clumsy and not-so-covert operations to grab terrorism suspects and transport them to foreign prisons has tied the United States to abduction and torture, in some cases of persons who may have been innocent of any crime or extremist connection. It has hurt the Bush administration's relations and ability to cooperate on intelligence and law enforcement with several close U.S. allies, including Canada, Germany and Sweden, as well as Italy. Though the CIA apparently cooperated with counterparts in several of those countries, the exposure of the operations has led to high-profile official investigations in all of them and a damaging political backlash. The refusal of the CIA or other administration spokesmen to respond to the uproar or cooperate with the inquiries has made the problem only worse.
The practice of rendition began before the Bush administration, and in some cases it is a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism. Some terrorists, such as Mir Amal Kansi, the Pakistani who killed two people outside CIA headquarters in 1993, have been captured in relatively lawless regions abroad and returned to the United States for trial. In other cases, where militants have been detained in unstable places but have no intelligence value or legal culpability, it may make sense for the United States to deliver them to their home countries, rather than free them or transport them to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for an indefinite term of detention. But renditions should be rare, and they should have clear rules and oversight. No terrorist suspect should be turned over to a government likely to use torture -- and Egypt, among other Middle Eastern countries, is a well-documented abuser. The CIA should not use illegal means to capture suspects in democratic countries with a strong rule of law, especially if they are allies of the United States. It may make it quicker or easier to get one extremist sheik off the street, but as the Italian case shows, the damage caused by such highhandedness is too great.