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Rendition Issue is Resolved, For Now

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There has been a good deal of controversy over renditions -- moving captured terrorists to countries where they might be tortured. Human-rights activists have complained that this has led to abuses, and the European Parliament has gone so far as to condemn renditions as "an illegal instrument used by the United States."

But under executive orders issued recently by President Barack Obama, it is clear that the CIA, while no longer imprisoning detainees indefinitely, will retain the authority to move them as necessary. This is very definitely a step in the right direction.

Under the Bush administration, the problem of what to do with accused terrorists was a constant issue. Obviously, they couldn't simply be turned loose to possibly resume plotting attacks against the United States. At the same time, trying them for conventional crimes was often impossible because the evidence of their culpability couldn't be disclosed without revealing vital intelligence sources. So they were simply imprisoned without the conventional rights to a fair trial or an opportunity to confront their accusers.

This was obviously open to serious constitutional objections, and these objections have now prevailed. One possible solution was to return them to their native countries, which could deal with them as they wished. But it was not always possible to be sure that they wouldn't be subjected to torture, or otherwise abused, in their homelands. So the tension has continued, and there has been a lively interest in the policy that the Obama administration would adopt.

Now, that question has been answered. Terrorists will not be held indefinitely in American prisons. Instead, the Bush administration's rendition policy will remain an option, though presumably, efforts will be made to ensure that prisoners moved to other countries will not be abused.

As an anonymous Obama administration official told a reporter, "Obviously, you need to preserve some tools. (Rendition) is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice."

Moreover, the new rules do not prohibit the CIA from holding prisoners "on a short-term, transitory basis." In other words, while terrorists are not to be imprisoned in the United States indefinitely, they can be detained and perhaps even interrogated here pending their transfer to foreign custody.

Thus far, even human-rights activists have been cautiously cordial toward the new policy. Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told the Los Angeles Times that "under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for renditions. "What I heard loud and clear from the president's order was that they want to design a system that doesn't result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured." Fair enough.

Resolving the problems involved in this matter of terrorists has been difficult and probably isn't over yet. Obviously, we must abide by our own constitutional provisions. But, equally obvious, we cannot allow terrorists committed to our destruction to go about their business uninterrupted. The policies described above strike a reasonable balance between individual rights and our obligation to protect our country.

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