Commentary: Obama's dented promise of no 'extraordinary renditions'

The Miami HeraldSeptember 1, 2009 

Back in April, the U.S. government snatched Raymond Azar out of Afghanistan.

His waist, wrists and ankles were shackled, he was stripped naked and photographed, made to wear headphones, blindfolded, hooded and stuffed into an executive jet for the U.S. Azar says his eyeglasses were taken and he was left in an ice cold room, denied food for 30 hours and told he might never see his wife and children again.

The FBI agent who was in charge denies that last accusation. And a spokesperson for the Justice Department says Azar was kept in a comfortable chair in a comfortable room and offered blankets, food and water. As near as I can determine, Azar's other claims are undisputed.

So maybe you wonder what his offenses were. Did he have a hand in some horrific act of sectarian violence in Afghanistan? Was he part of a terror cell plotting to attack some American landmark?

Actually, Azar's crime was that he padded invoices and paid kickbacks.

According to published reports, Raymond Azar is a Lebanese man who worked for a Lebanese construction company with a multimillion Pentagon contract to do reconstruction work in Afghanistan. Recently, Azar pleaded guilty to paying an Army Corp of Engineers officer in exchange for the officer's approval of the inflated bills. He faces as much as five years behind bars.

Serious stuff, to be sure. But serious enough for hoods, blindfolds and shackles? Color me skeptical.

The whole thing carries a thorny echo of the "extraordinary renditions" that flourished under President George W. Bush, when a supposed terrorist would be grabbed up, shackled, hooded and shipped off to some Middle Eastern dungeon where interrogators were happy to torture him into saying whatever needed to be said. Many Americans were appalled by that contravention of the nation's values, among them a presidential candidate named Barack Obama who promised an end to "the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries."

If that promise was not broken by Azar's experience, it sure was dented. Meaning that, while this was not an extraordinary rendition per se — Azar wasn't shipped to some other nation for torture — it was close enough to give pause, especially considering the nature of Azar's crime.

His "weapon" was a ledger, for criminy sake! For that it was necessary to treat him like the love child of Osama bin Laden and Hannibal Lecter?

The Department of Justice says it was. "This was a law enforcement transfer that's consistent with international law," says Tracy Schmaler, a DOJ spokesperson. "These transitions are not unusual when the fugitives are located in countries with which we do not have extradition treaties."

The FBI, she tells me — repeatedly — "followed standard operating procedure."

Maybe it did. But I'll tell you something: Barack Obama was elected president in large part on a promise to restore the nation's battered moral authority. He appealed to voters because he seemed to understand what his predecessor did not, i.e., that America must embody ideals bigger than the exigencies and expediencies of the moment.

Somebody should remind him of that. Our ideals are not validated when some guy gets hooded and shackled because he overcharged the government. Our moral authority is not restored when we hide behind the fig leaf of standard operating procedure.

No, this does not match the worst abuses of the Bush era, but it is close enough that it must surely disillusion and dismay those who thought a corner was turned on Jan. 20. It must leave them hoping that faith was not misplaced.

Sometimes a dented promise is worse than no promise at all.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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