A true story: Several years ago, the CIA informed the White House counterterrorism adviser that it had located a wanted Islamic terrorist and requested White House guidance for how to proceed. The counterterrorism adviser recommended “extraordinary rendition” — snatching the terrorist in a covert operation and secretly whisking him away for interrogation in a foreign country. A White House lawyer demanded a meeting with the president to argue that this would be a violation of international law. In the Oval Office, the lawyer and the counterterrorism adviser argued their cases, when suddenly the vice president walked in. Hearing the lawyer’s objections, he said: “Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.’ ” The rendition was authorized.
The vice president in question was not Dick Cheney, nor was the president George W. Bush. Rather, they men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”
This episode is worth recalling in light of Amnesty International’s call for the arrest of former President George W. Bush during his recent visit to Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia for alleged “crimes under international law” relating to his administration’s RDI (Rendition, Detention and Interrogation) program. Yet it was the Clinton administration that pioneered what Amnesty considers the “illegal” practice of extraordinary rendition, which the organization claims “usually involve[s] multiple human rights violations.” Indeed, Gore himself acknowledged that such renditions were “a violation of international law” but counseled the president to go ahead anyway — sending captured terrorists to be interrogated by the intelligence services of regimes with questionable human rights records.
I asked Amnesty spokeswoman Sharon Singh, whether Amnesty had ever made a similar request for foreign governments to detain Bill Clinton and Al Gore when they traveled abroad? She sent me a press release Amnesty had put out in 1999 calling for an investigation of alleged war crimes during the Kosovo war but could not provide a single example of any time Amnesty had demanded the arrest of Clinton or Gore.
And what about the leaders of regimes that massacre their own people, imprison democratic activists and practice real torture? I asked Amnesty for a complete list of foreign leaders it had demanded be seized during their foreign travels. Amnesty sent press releases it had put out calling for the arrests of Ethiopian former head of state Mengistu Haile Mariam; Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa; former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet (after he was already arrested in London); Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic (both indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia); Liberian President Charles Taylor (already indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone) and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (previously indicted by the International Criminal Court). That’s it.
Of course, putting Bush in the company of such individuals is itself outrageous. But what is even more troubling are the names left off of Amnesty’s list. For example, one Amnesty release demanded the arrest of Sudan’s president during his visit to China. But where was Amnesty’s demand for the arrest of China’s President Hu Jintao, whose regime is one of the worst abusers of human rights on the face of the planet? How about President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is slaughtering thousands of his citizens? Or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran? Or Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba? Or Kim Jong Il of North Korea? Amnesty wants Bush arrested but has not demanded the arrest of these brutal dictators? .
Amnesty’s call for Bush’s arrest was a blatantly partisan act — and it wasn’t the first time the group had done so. Last October, when Bush traveled to British Columbia, the group demanded that Canada arrest him as well, declaring Canada’s failure to do so would “demonstrate contempt for fundamental human rights.” At the time, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney blasted Amnesty, declaring, “This kind of stunt helps explain why so many respected human rights advocates have abandoned Amnesty International.”
He is right. And it is time for others to do the same. Amnesty International seeks to be part of the fabric of decision-making in Washington — testifying in Congress, meeting with U.S. officials and participating in policy debates and decisions. Demanding the arrest of a former American president should disqualify it from playing such a role. If Amnesty wants to wallow in the fever swamps of political discourse, then it should pay a price for doing so. The group should henceforth be shunned by official Washington. Members of Congress should refuse to meet with Amnesty officials or allow them to testify on Capitol Hill. Think tanks should refuse to include them on panels or study groups. And the next Republican administration should consider them a pariah. If Amnesty wants to behave like a left-wing fringe group, it should expect to be treated as such.