By next Monday William Hague and Phillip Hammond could be behind bars. In December, the Court of Appeal ruled that the foreign and defence secretaries had by February 20th to produce before the court a Pakistani rice merchant, Yunus Rahmatullah; if they did not, then the court would ‘be moved to commit you to prison for your contempt in not obeying the said writ’.

Hague and Hammond will not, of course, be sent down. But the Rahmatullah case does reveal, yet again, the lawlessness of the war on terror. The story begins in February 2004, when Rahmatullah and Amanatullah Ali, a fellow merchant, disappeared on a business trip to Iran. They were held incommunicado for nearly a year before their families learned that they had been seized by British forces in Iraq and then turned over to the Americans who had renditioned them to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. There they have been held for the past eight years beyond the rule of law and in conditions far worse than those at Guantánamo Bay. No charges have been filed against them, and both the British and American governments have refused to provide any hearing or account for their continued detention.

Last year, the human rights organization Reprieve sought a writ of habeas corpus in the British courts on behalf of Rahmatullah. A similar writ was placed before US courts on behalf of Amanatullah Ali. The British government argued that habeas corpus did not apply because British forces no longer held the prisoner. The American government claimed that habeas corpus did not apply because American courts had no authority over the Bagram base, as it was in a war zone, forgetting to add that the base is used by America to prosecute that war and that the men had been deliberately flown into that war zone by US forces. In December, however, the British Court of Appeal granted the writ and demanded that Hague and Hammmond produce Rahmatullah.

The Rahmatullah case is the latest in a series of revelations which expose the ugly underbelly of the war on terror. Last month it was revealed that British spies had helped rendition Libyan dissidents to Colonel Gadaffi. Earlier this month President Assad released from prison Abu Musab al-Suri, the alleged ‘mastermind’ of the 7/7 bombings. What was he doing in Assad’s jail in the first place? He had been renditioned there by British and American forces. Last week details emerged of a secret British detention centre in Iraq, codenamed H1, deliberately designed to be beyond the law.

When Barack Obama came to power in 2009, many expected a transformation in the war on terror. Obama promised to close down Guantánamo Bay, revise George Bush’s tactics and ensure that US policy conformed to national law and human rights. So taken was the world by Obama’s promises that in October 2009, barely having got his feet under the Oval Office desk, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, over the past three years, not only has he failed to close down Guantánamo but he has extended Bush’s assault on rights and liberties. In December, Obama signed off on the National Defense Authorization Act which allows for indefinite military detention. He has maintained the policy of extraordinary rendition (a euphemism for kidnapping) and of secret prisons across the globe. He has intensified the use of drones, and of their use in a programme of extra-judicial assassinations, including of US citizens, such as the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla, who was killed by a drone in Yemen last September. He has endorsed the right of the government to strip citizens of legal protections based on its sole discretion. He has introduced warrantless searches of everything from business documents to library records.

George Bush, Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, insisted on being able to eavesdrop on anyone, or to detain them, purely on his authority without judicial warrant. Obama has asserted his right not merely to eavesdrop or detain but ‘even to kill citizens without due process’. As the former CIA chief Michael Hayden recently observed about the al-Awlaki assassination, ‘We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him but we didn’t need a court order to kill him.’ But perhaps it is not so surprising. For, as Michael A Cohen reminded us in Foreign Policy, for all his liberal credentials, and all his disparaging of Bush’s tactics, before he came to power ‘Obama’s loudest public pledge when it came to terrorism was not to do less, but rather more’.  In his first major foreign policy speech in July 2008, Obama insisted that  ‘We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.’ And perhaps, as I wrote at the time, Obama’s Peace Prize was fitting given the sordid history of the award.

What has changed in the Obama years is not so much US policy as liberal opinion. A poll in the Washington Post last week showed broad support for Obama’s war. Seventy per cent of Americans approve of Obama’s decision to keep open Guantánamo Bay. More than four in five endorse the use of drones and almost two in three find acceptable the extra-judicial killings of US citizens. These are extraordinary numbers for such a controversial policy. As Michael Hayden observed of the US programme of assassinations, ‘Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.’

Even more striking has been the support for these policies among liberals. Fifty-eight per cent of Democrats now endorse assassinations of US citizens.  Even among those who define themselves as liberals, 55 per cent support such killings. As for the decision to maintain Guantánamo Bay, 67 per cent of moderate or conservative Democrats and 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats support it.

Obama strode to power promising ‘Change you can believe in’. But that change has come not to policy, but to perception. The major impact of Obama’s presidency has been to make legitimate that which had previously been seen, and not just by liberals, as scandalous. Take attitudes to Guantánamo Bay. As the US Advocacy Centre for Equality and Democracy shows, until Obama came to power, support for the prison had steadily fallen over the previous decade. In 2003, when memories of 9/11 were still raw, 65 per cent of Americans supported its use. By 2006 that figure had fallen to 57 per cent.  In June 2009, shortly after Obama had entered the White House, more Americans thought it should be closed down than wanted it kept open: 48 per cent wanted rid of it, 40 per cent supported its continued use. Today, 70 per cent want to keep it. In other words, after nearly four years of the Obama presidency, more people support Guantánamo than they did even in the aftermath of 9/11. This is not so much ‘change you can believe in’ as ‘change in what you believe’.

Neither William Hague nor Phillip Hammond will find themselves locked up next Monday. Both Yunus Rahmatullah and Amanatullah Ali almost certainly will – as they have been for the past eight years.  What, in the midst of a network of secret prisons, a programme of worldwide abduction, and a policy of extra-judicial assassinations, has really been renditioned in the war on terror is the sense of justice.

One comment

  1. rowanwphillips

    I agree almost completely with he opinion in this piece. Other than the views on the use of drones which I see as a legitimate weapon of war, much like cruise missiles, the idea that the end always justifies the means is one that the more progressive elements of our society have been trying to rid ourselves of for hundreds of years. Fighting terror with terror has never and will never work.
    Emergency terror legislation has already been used to justify arrests in non-terror related cases, if unchecked it will not be long before the authoritarian power of the state intrudes into the private lives of all citizens for no reason other than control.

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