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Means and ends in
hunting terrorists



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

June 13, 2006

LONDON - On September 17th 2002, six days after the planes destroyed the World Trade Center, George W. Bush declared he was going to hunt down Osama bin Laden. "There's an old poster out West, I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive'."

Now we learn, nearly four years' later, that Bush's wife Laura, had privately admonished him for talking like a gun-slinger - not very sophisticated and presidential seems to have been the gist of her remarks. Yet, as you can tell a tiger by its stripes, you can tell a person by the way they talk, especially when they are charged up.

This is a president who acts on the baser instincts that dominate his personality. Means and ends do not cohere in Bush, as Martin Luther King might have said. There are no regrets about suspending perhaps the oldest of all codified human rights - habeas corpus. No doubts about creating a legal limbo in Guantánamo. And now we learn no regrets about being caught in flagrante delicto, running a CIA-organised network that transports all over Europe and the Middle East terrorist "suspects", so that they can be detained, threatened and, if necessary, tortured without anyone in a sophisticated and open legal system being allowed to know.

There is no surprise in all this. The man spoke four years ago as he feels. And he acts as he speaks. What is surprising in the recent revelations by the Council of Europe is that this "spider's web" of rendition involved over a dozen European countries, some of whom publicly broke with America over its decision to go to war with Iraq, supposedly because it was in cahoots with bin Laden as well as maintaining an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. What we learn is that the break was skin deep. The umbilical cord that stretches from bureaucracy to bureaucracy from intelligence service to intelligence service and often enough from elite governing classes to their counterpart across the Atlantic was never cut. European public opinion which made clear with its marches, articles and declarations on the eve of the Iraqi war that it did not want to be part of a 'cowboy' foreign policy, where means undermine the end, has been totally betrayed.

Public opinion takes some time to be roused. But once the penny drops that Europeans have been duped by the governments they trusted the backlash could be severe. Even the middle-of-the-road Financial Times editorialised last week that rendition was "Orwellian" and that "we should not need to make the case against torture. It is morally depraved. It corrodes the society that condones it."

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This does not mean that Europe has to shut its eyes to the terrorist menace. It cannot. But it has to stick with the methods of pursuit of the late Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter-in-chief, who was a stickler for legality. He had the skill and the perseverance to unearth war criminals wherever they were hiding. His greatest catch was Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Holocaust. 

Baltasar Garzón, Spain's top anti-terrorism judge, whose prosecutions broke the back of ETA, is a man of the same mould. All was accomplished without a hint of torture and followed due process of law.

In the spring of 1996 the government of Sudan, where bin Laden was then living, made an offer to the CIA to arrest him. But the Clinton administration passed on the offer, believing that it couldn't get a conviction in a U.S. court and instead tried unsuccessfully to persuade Saudi Arabia to take him in and put him on trial. Samuel Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, told the Washington Post in October 2001, "In the U.S. we have this thing called the Constitution, so to bring him to justice I don't think was our first choice. Our first choice was to bring him some place where justice was more streamlined."

It is clear that the policy of "rendition" predates George Bush. What is missing in both the Clinton and Bush attitudes is the conviction that U.S. courts will be responsive to an honest, above board, prosecution. Berger's colleagues told the Washington Post that "they hoped that King Fahd would order bin Laden's swift beheading". One assumes the evidence against him even then must have been rather incriminating if that was their viewpoint, so why were they so doubtful about American justice?

The truth is the law only works well if we believe in it. Wiesenthal and Garzón clearly had no doubts. Clinton and Bush appear not to. Europe now has to make up its mind where it stands.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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