Soon after September 11, 2001, US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced the creation of a prison at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, for what officials called the ‘the worst of the worst’ and without the protection of the Geneva Conventions. To many across the world, it seemed a dangerous precedent. These concerns were reinforced by pictures showing the terrorist suspects to be known as ‘enemy combatants’ or ‘detainees’ not ‘prisoners’ trussed up and held in what appeared to be cages.
However, as a journalist covering the aftermath of 9/11 for the UK’s Sunday Times, I soon heard whispers that there was something much bigger going on: a system of clandestine prisons that involved the incarceration of thousands of prisoners, not just the few hundred in Cuba. While the President spoke of spreading liberty across the world, CIA insiders referred to a return to the ‘old days’, of working hand-in-glove with some of the most repressive secret police in the world: regimes like Egypt and Uzbekistan that also happened to be the toughest opponents of Islamic extremism .
Administration officials referred to the CIA programs as among the most top secret of activities. As a reporter without access to classified information, how could I hope to discover more? How would I penetrate this secret world to find out the truth behind these rumours?
Curiously, the first clue was to come from someone who would become important in this story. Sitting on a comfortable sofa on Capitol Hill in December 2001, I was interviewing a leading Congressman, Representative Porter Goss. For the last five years, Goss had led the House’s Intelligence Committee and he was complaining about how the CIA’s operations had declined in effectiveness since the end of the Cold War. Goss was a believer in covert action. Far better, he told me, to have snatched a dictator like the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, and hauled him to The Hague to face a war crimes trial than to launch a war like President Clinton did and cause the death of many civilians. I asked him about al-Qaeda and whether the CIA could have kidnapped Osama bin Laden.
‘It’s called a rendition. Do you know that?’ said Goss.
‘No,’ I replied.
‘Well, there is a polite way to take people out of action and bring them to some type of justice. It’s generally referred to as a rendition.’
It was this man who set me on the trail of the CIA’s rendition program a program of snatches and imprisonment that operated outside normal rules; and one that was protected almost always by a veil of secrecy.
The second clue came in early 2002, after Rumsfeld had opened the GuantÃ¡namo Bay prison. I was talking to someone with close sources in the CIA. His advice was something of a riddle. ‘Start with what’s public,’ he said. ‘Look at GuantÃ¡namo and look at the press releases. You’ll see there are prisoners going in, and there are prisoners going out. Ask yourself what’s happening to these people. Where are they are going, and how are they are being transported?’
There were other clues, too. Like the scattered reports from around the world of something else the snatching of terrorist suspects by men wearing masks, and the presence always somewhere nearby of a mysterious private executive jet.
It was this detail in the story the use of these executive Gulfstream jets that stood out, and I began to think hard about it. In the end, it became clear that the airplanes were not only a surreal, bizarre detail; they were also a means of penetrating this secret world. These CIA planes were masquerading as normal civilian business jets, betraying nothing of their role in transporting prisoners, blindfolded and shackled, to torture centres across the world. Yet to follow that path they would have to play by civilian rules, filing detailed flight plans for example and parking in highly visible civilian airports. By tracking these flights I would have a clue to the precise movements of both the CIA and its prisoners. If Watergate was about ‘follow the money,’ the story of renditions was about ‘follow the planes.’ Or so it appeared.
What I and others discovered soon enough was that the CIA had created for itself a new version of the old Air America, the CIA-owned airline that was used for much of the Agency’s covert action from the 1950s through to the late 1970s. After some months, I obtained flight logs of over 20 planes used by the CIA. In all, I had in my hands about 12,000 records of their movements. It was a ledger of global covert action. With this information, and with the help and research of others, I began to piece together a story of the CIA’s new War on Terror, and of the new compromises that it was making.
In the course of my research I’ve interviewed CIA pilots who flew these prisoners, CIA operations officers who held prisoners in their personal custody, CIA chiefs who planned the rendition program, and White House officials who ordered and authorised the missions. These men and women told me that the rendition program was vital the ‘most important and most effective weapon that has been used in the War on Terror,’ according to one senior officer. But, because of its secrecy, this central policy of the US Government had hardly been written about or evaluated in full detail.
Most of those involved in the program claimed to me that torture was never the purpose of renditions. I believed them. Yet, almost to a man, they admitted that, when transferring prisoners to jails across the world, the CIA knew that the torture of these men was inevitable. Contrary to what was claimed later, the White House was fully informed. Those in charge knew the prisoner would be tortured.
After 9/11, rendition moved from a system where torture was incidental, to a system where interrogations and torture were actively outsourced. Though it started as a means simply to return terrorist suspects to their home countries for trial (and is still publicly and falsely described like this, including by President Bush), the cases I investigated showed a different pattern.
These prisoners had not just ‘disappeared’ and then returned to their home countries they were sent on a journey through a network of jails, including to countries where they had never lived or had left decades earlier and where they faced no allegations or suspicions. In many cases, prisoners arrived in such foreign jails with a list of questions to ask of them provided by Western intelligence. In other cases, such as in Afghanistan, the CIA established its own prisons on foreign soil. Local guards ‘prepared’ the prisoners and CIA contractors did the actual questioning.
Torture is defined in law as the deliberate infliction by State officials of ‘severe pain, whether physical or mental.’ Such pain, the law defines, can be inflicted in a single act like the use of electric shocks or a threat to kill someone’s family. But torture, as defined, can also mean a pattern of treatment that, little by little, destroys the prisoner’s mind.
Dragged for months, or even years, from prison to prison, from country to country, with no hope of release, no hope of appearing in court or no hope of facing concrete charges, rendition for many became a tunnel with no light at the end. And for those held wi
thin its confines, the torture of rendition came not from the tactics of the interrogators. Those pains could be endured. Torture was the system itself. Ordered and authorised from the top of the White House, the rendition program became a torture program.
This is an edited extract from Ghost Plane: The Untold Story of the CIA’s Torture Programme, published by Scribe.
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