[25 October 2007]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
A young woman goes to see “Blood Diamond” because she admires Leonardo DiCaprio. Later, she and her fiance stop by a jewelry store to pick out their engagement rings. “No blood diamonds,” she tells the man behind the counter.
Call it a culture shift, a societal change, a step closer to a perfected civilization - all for the price of a movie ticket.
For the past couple of decades, much of the newspaper and magazine reporting out of Africa has been stunning, delivered by journalists who in many cases risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to get out the word about droughts, famines, coups, AIDS and genocide.
But most Americans didn’t know much about Rwanda until they saw “Hotel Rwanda.” Most knew nothing about Big Pharma’s testing of drugs on African children before “The Constant Gardener.” Until “Syriana,” few grasped the confluence between oil and intelligence.
Even more than the news media, Hollywood has become The Teacher. Its next effort to teach Americans about their world, and their government, comes from director Gavin Hood, whose “Rendition” opened Friday.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, something called “renditions” have sporadically been in the news. To the casual or distracted reader, they seem to involve the CIA’s abduction of a terrorist somewhere in the world and his forcible transportation to a friendly Arab country where he is thrown in prison.
Although the details are always vague, it has been difficult for many Americans to understand why renditions should be cause for concern. Is one less terrorist on the street a bad thing?
“Rendition” will help, combining as it does elements of three real-life cases in which individuals against whom there was no evidence were rendered into a living hell that lasted months and even years before they were released for lack of evidence.
Between 1987 and 1998 the FBI carried out 15 renditions from a variety of countries. The targets included some of those later convicted in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa, and Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani who emptied an assault rifle into arriving employees at CIA headquarters, killing two and wounding five before he fled to Pakistan.
Nobody objected, because the result was a criminal trial in an American courtroom where the “rendees” were given Miranda rights and the other legal protections available to any defendant.
More than a century ago, the Supreme Court said it didn’t matter how a defendant got into an American courtroom, only that he got there. That concept still stands.
Behind the curtain, however, renditions were evolving into something else.
In 1998 the CIA “helped” the Albanian security service round up four Egyptians working for a charity (rightly) suspected of serving as a front for Osama bin Laden.
They were flown back to Egypt on planes chartered by the CIA. Two, charged with the murders of foreign tourists in Luxor, were tried and executed.
The Albanian case didn’t present many legal or ethical problems because the abduction had been done with the Albanians’ consent, the Egyptians were charged with a capital crime in their own country, and they received some semblance of a trial before being convicted.
Still, it represented an ominous departure from the past.
Rather than the FBI - a law-enforcement agency - bringing suspects back to face criminal charges in the U.S., the CIA - an intelligence agency with no police powers - was now transporting criminal suspects from Country A to Country B. From there it wasn’t a huge step to the weeks after 9-11, in which the CIA’s “Special Activities Division” began delivering terrorist suspects not accused of any crime to an often brutal reception in Countries E (Egypt), M (Morocco) or S (Syria).
The fictional Anwar El-Ibrahimi, a chemical engineer who lives with his pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon) and young son in a Chicago suburb, is a model citizen.
Born in Egypt, Anwar (played by Omar Metwally) came to the U.S. at 14, and has been living here for 20 years. Except for his name, and the fact that his mother wears a hijab, he’s as American as you. He graduated from New York University, makes $200,000 a year as a chemical engineer, delivers papers at international conferences like the one he just finished attending in South Africa, even serves as a U.S. government consultant.
Meryl Streep, who reprises her venomous portrayal of an Anna Wintour-like character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” this time as a senior CIA official, is (wrongly) convinced Anwar has been in touch with a terrorist bomb-builder named Rashid. The CIA seems to have discovered calls from Rashid to Anwar’s cell phone.
Changing planes in Washington for the final leg of his flight home to Chicago, Anwar is snatched at the airport by men wearing black masks and taken away for questioning.
He insists he doesn’t know any Rashid or anything else about terrorist bombs. When they can’t find any evidence to the contrary, the agents are about ready to let him go home. “Nobody’s interested in this guy,” one tells Streep with a shrug.
Streep isn’t easily persuaded. “I’m interested,” she says. “Put him on the plane.”
A few hours later Anwar is in a country that might as well be Egypt, because its government has admitted to playing host to some 70 CIA renditions.
What follow isn’t pretty, but it is definitely educational.
Much has been written about an interrogation technique called “waterboarding,” which the CIA employed against several of the al-Qaida higher-ups that swam into its net in the months after Sept. 11.
Waterboarding is usually described as giving the victim the “impression” that he or she is drowning. After watching Anwar get the treatment, it’s clear that there’s nothing impressionistic about it. Waterboarding is drowning.
Anyone who wonders precisely what’s involved when rendition suspects are tortured with electricity will wonder no more.
“Rendition” lends credence to another objection, often raised by former intelligence and law-enforcement agents, that torture is of no value because someone being tortured will say anything to make the torture stop.
Viewers of “Rendition” who understand that Anwar is innocent, the victim of some cosmic mistake, are nevertheless likely to be startled when, rather than face another session with 220 volts, he suddenly begins confessing to acts he could not have committed.
His tactic soon becomes clear. He cannot explain what happened to the $40,000 he claims to have been promised by Rashid. The terrorist “co-conspirators” whose names he rattles off turn out to be the other players on his former soccer team.
Anwar’s tormenters won’t take “yes” for an answer. But a junior CIA officer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, develops both an increasing revulsion to the CIA’s approach and a growing conviction that Anwar is innocent.
Earlier, when Streep says, “You’re new at this, aren’t you?” Gyllenhaal replies, “This is my first torture.”
“The United States does not torture,” Streep snaps back.
Those words embody the real-life constitutional dilemma that may await us around the corner.
Yet to be adjudicated are such questions as whether U.S. government employees working abroad are bound by the Geneva Conventions or this country’s anti-torture treaties and statutes.
In short, can those laws and treaties be evaded by retaining the Egyptians or the Syrians to torture suspects on the CIA’s behalf? Is the “outsourcing” of torture legal?
Answers may someday be forthcoming. Already prosecutors in Italy and Germany have charged some 40 CIA employees with kidnapping an Egyptian imam in Milan and a German-Lebanese citizen in Macedonia.
Anwar’s fictional case most resembles that of a real Canadian citizen, Maher Arar - himself an engineer - who was changing planes at New York’s JFK International Airport in September 2002 when he was seized and held for two weeks of questioning.
The Canadian government, which had tipped the U.S. to Arar’s arrival, expected him to be put on a plane for Canada. Instead, the CIA decided to fly him to Jordan, where he was driven across the Syrian border and spent 10 months being tortured in a Damascus prison.
An investigation by the Canadian government concluded there never had been any evidence linking Arar to terrorism.
The only purely fictional thing in “Rendition” is the Meryl Streep character, who orders that Anwar be put “on the plane.”
The retired CIA official who held her job in real life has become highly skeptical about the value of what he calls “all this paramilitary stuff.”
“We never got any good (intelligence) product from a rendition,” he says now.