Silence on our supporting role in rendition is deafening
How quiet can a country get? Here we are, the great communicators of Europe, the legendary talkers of national stereotype. Yet the silence that greeted the report on the role Ireland played in extraordinary rendition has been deafening. Last week was certainly a busy one. But surely having a supporting role in a publication such as Globalising Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, published last week by the Open Society Justice Initiative, is worthy of a little national attention.
The report was briefly covered, in three short pieces, by this newspaper, by the Irish Examiner and in a discussion on the Last Word on Today FM. Journal.iehad it on Tuesday.
The subject is also in the news because United States president Barack Obama’s nominee for the post of director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, supported extraordinary rendition. But still you couldn’t exactly call extraordinary rendition a talking point here. Extraordinary rendition, and our part in it, has not been a popular topic with us.
Yet we could never quite pretend, either, not to know what extraordinary rendition involved. Globalising Torture last week defined it as “the transfer – without legal process – of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation”. But as long ago as December 2002 a US official gave the Washington Post this admirably clear definition: “We don’t kick the **** out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the **** out of them.”
There were times when the Irish used to shout at each other, in a friendly way, about prisoners being thrown down the stairs of South African police stations, back in the days of apartheid.
There were times when the Irish used to shout at each other, in a slightly less friendly way, about the hooding of IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland. But there never was a time when we wanted to talk about the extraordinary rendition aircraft going through Shannon Airport. This is not what was originally meant by the phrase “duty-free”.
Powerless to question
We felt powerless to question the US. We assumed US investment here would dry up if we did. So we never tried. Yet if the British had been doing the same thing we would have been at the head of the posse . Damn it, we would have comprised the entire posse – and rightly so.
The funny thing is that for once in our lives we cannot complain about all our politicians. Quite a few of them asked questions in the Dáil, including our President, Michael D Higgins, before he was promoted to glory.
Amnesty International and the Irish Human Rights Commission produced critical reports, in 2008 and 2007 respectively. It was just that we, the Irish public, didn’t want to know. We were clinging on in a peculiarly Irish limbo.
You could feel this in Shannon Airport at the time, as the rain ran down your collar and on to your notebook and a small, elegant aircraft – it was said the aircraft were leased from millionaires – sat on the apron.
The day I was there a slim, dark man walked down the steps of the aircraft. That was it. Gardaí were not allowed to search the aircraft. They looked embarrassed. Inside the airport terminal the newspapers carrying a front-page story about American troops going through Shannon were on the shelves of the newsagent’s shop, turned face-down. The protesters were drenched and tired and patronised – not least by the media, not least by me. It was shaming.
Prof Fiona de Londras, author of Detention in the ‘War on Terror’: Can Human Rights Fight Back?, points out that Globalising Torture shows how enormous the system of extraordinary rendition was. Ireland is 26 on the alphabetical list of the 54 countries that helped: we appear between Iran and Italy. The list of countries stretches from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
The debate continues about whether information obtained in this way can ever be useful. The Americans themselves are currently examining this question. Senator John McCain, a torture survivor and hardly a bleeding heart liberal, does not think it can.
The debate about whether extraordinary rendition picked up innocent men never really started. Globalising Torture relates how in 2005 a CIA officer told the Washington Post: “They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association with terrorism.” The article is cited in the footnotes as Wrongful Imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA Mistake.