Obama's Alleged Link to Secret Prisons and Extraordinary Rendition

July 14, 2011

Following hard on the heels of the revelation that the Obama administration had held Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in secret detention on a US naval vessel patrolling off the coast of Somalia for over two months, comes a startling new claim from The Nation magazine that the Obama administration is back in the extraordinary rendition business.

Writing in the latest edition of The Nation, journalist Jeremy Scahill alleges that since early 2009 the United States has maintained a secret prison located on a compound within the perimeter of Mogadishu Airport and that in July 2009 the United States was involved in the extraordinary rendition of Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan from Kenya to Somalia.

Without further independent investigation it is difficult to make a definitive judgment about Scahill’s claims but it is worth noting that he is the author of the well-regarded study “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and has extensive contacts in the intelligence, special forces, and private military contractor communities.

Hassan’s plight has been taken up by the UK-based human rights organization Reprieve and by the Kenyan human rights lawyer Mbugua Mureithi. Together they have obtained the following testimony from Hassan about his detention relayed by a former fellow prisoner:

“They put a bag on my head, Guantánamo style. They tied my hands behind my back and put me on a plane. In the early hours we landed in Mogadishu… I have been here for one year, seven months. I have been interrogated so many times. Interrogated by Somali men and white men. Every day. New faces show up. They have nothing on me. I have never seen a lawyer, never seen an outsider. Only other prisoners, interrogators, guards.”

The Warsame case has raised the possibility for the first time that the Obama administration might actually be holding other prisoners in secret detention facilities hidden around the world. Ahmed Hassan may be one such prisoner.

Amnesty has repeatedly sought a definitive statement from the Obama administration repudiating the practice of extraordinary rendition but administration officials have consistently ducked the issue. We now may know the reason why.

Last Tuesday Human Rights Watch issued a new report on the human rights abuses committed during the Bush administration as part of the War on Terror entitled Getting Away with Torture. The report brings the public history of this period up to date and calls for a further release of classified documents relating to the illegal interrogations authorized by the Bush White House.

The report also warns of “the price of impunity” noting that if US abuses go unpunished it will embolden other states around the world to turn their back on their international legal obligations. The report stops short of warning that impunity might also encourage the reemergence of these tactics in the United States itself but that now seems to be a real possibility.

Jeremy Scahill’s article reminds us once again of the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson’s observation that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We can’t simply ‘turn the page’ on the mistakes of the past and expect that they will not be repeated again in the future.

Impunity is the handmaiden of abuse and the Obama administration now stands at the fork in the road. It can either recapture the spirit of the President’s first week in office and irrevocably reject the use of secret prisons and extraordinary rendition, or it can choose to stay silent and the President will see his own Presidency end up just as tarnished as that of his predecessor.