The Partnership for a Secure America formed to confront (and hopefully counteract) problems in the American foreign policy debate. We don’t have enough civil discussion of important foreign policy issues. Sometimes we have partisan shouting matches; sometimes the name-calling actually masks bipartisan consensus on the underlying issue, preventing Americans from thinking through alternative policies that might better serve the national interest.
Normally, blog-writers here complain about shrill politicians — for good reason. But this morning on NPR, I heard a new facet of the nasty, “gotcha” style of foreign policy debate in the U.S. The ACLU is upset (justifiably, IMHO) that the U.S. might facilitate torture of suspects in the War on Terror through the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” where suspects are transferred between countries, without judicial process, often to countries with poor human rights practices (i.e., to places where interrogation may involve torture). This practice may or may not have benefits in preventing terror, but it’s hard to have a reasoned policy debate about extraordinary rendition in an environment of secrecy and name-calling. So the ACLU is looking around for some way to impose accountability.
Again, I’m all in favor of accountability for bad policies in the War on Terror. The ACLU has a good history of asking questions, lobbying, suing, and otherwise injecting important issues into American policy debates. Today, the ACLU perhaps has a beef with the CIA or perhaps with the Bush Administration policy-makers who authorize and support the CIA’s actions. There may be aspects of rendition that make sense — aspects that do not lead to torture. If the U.S. wants to defend this policy, leaders need to make that clear and to take steps to give the public (including the international public) confidence that the policy is not and will not be abused. The ACLU should ask questions.
But this morning, the ACLU asked questions of someone else. Of Boeing (actually, one of its subsidiaries). The ACLU previously participated in a law suit against the CIA, one that is currently under appeal. Temporarily stymied on that avenue, though, they grabbed for another possible villain. Big corporations are rarely popular, so why not go after Boeing? At least it keeps the issue in the public eye.
I don’t know anything about the details of Jeppesen Dataplan’s business (that’s the Boeing subsidiary) or its relationship to the CIA. But the story seems to be that Jeppesen provides support to people who fly — helps them calculate airway routes, file itineraries, arrange for refueling, etc. They do this for commercial aircraft, business aircraft, and others, including some government flights. Their business does not include anything in particular about the purpose of the flights (a vacation or a rendition?) or the contents of the aircraft (an executive’s family or a suspect being rendered?). They don’t even fly the airplane. They just provide some charts, digital data, interface to aviation authorities, etc.
But somehow, the ACLU wants them to be responsible for torture. The soundbite is really inflammatory: “profit from torture.”
Why not also sue the hotels in which the pilots stayed? The fuel companies? The airport managers? The caterers? It’s hard to think of all of the possible service providers or even manufacturers who might have some indirect role here.
This is nuts. A reasonable debate about appropriate policy needs to target the right people. The debate should be about the policy. Even if Jeppesen Dataplan employees knew that these flights were rendition flights (as the ACLU alleges), all they provided were legal flight services; the alleged bad behavior was the rendition itself, which was a government policy decision, not a company decision.
The ACLU should not be in the business of shaking down companies doing their normal, day-to-day business — unless that business happens to be the direct provision of “torture services” or something else outlandish.