Friday, Oct. 13, 2006
Inside the CIA's Secret Prisons Program
An explosive new book provides a rare glimpse into the full extent of the agency's controversial terror renditions — and the curious coalition of partners who helped the U.S. pull them off
In December of 2001, U.S. agents arranged to have a German citizen flown to a Syrian jail called the Palestine Branch, renowned for its use of torture, and later offered to pass written questions to Syrian interrogators to pose to the prisoner, according to a secret German intelligence report shown to TIME on Wednesday. The report is described in the new book Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program by British investigative journalist Stephen Grey. The complex arrangement was part of the CIA's sprawling practice of extraordinary renditions, the secret transfer of terror suspects to hidden prisons across the world — which has involved the aid of numerous foreign governments and the knowledge of key Western European allies, according to the book, which was shown to TIME by the author. After U.S. officials long refused to confirm the CIA's secret detention of terror suspects abroad, President Bush last month admitted that terror suspects had been transferred abroad to secret CIA facilities, but U.S. officials continue to deny that such prisoners have been tortured, saying that foreign governments assured them that they would be treated fairly.
The prisoner flown to Syria in December 2001 was no ordinary criminal: 42-year-old Mohammad Haydr Zammar, a businessman who had immigrated to Germany and was living in Hamburg, was wanted by U.S. officials on suspicion of helping to recruit some of the 9/11 hijackers, as part of Al Qaeda's Hamburg cell. According to the report, after a U.S. request Zammar was arrested in Morocco by local police. He was questioned in Morocco by CIA officials and then flown to Damascus; the intelligence report does not specify which aircraft transferred him.
The cooperation between an unlikely coalition of intelligence agencies did not end there. The intelligence report gives a rare glimpse into the favors exchanged between governments during the CIA renditions. One day after Germany learned that the Syrians were holding Zammar, the CIA offered the German foreign-intelligence agency BND the chance to put written questions to their prisoner. The intelligence report doesn't make clear whether CIA interrogators had direct physical access to Zammar. In June 2002, Syrian officials offered German interrogators access to Zammar in prison, according to the 263-page report by the BND, marked "Geheim" (Secret). That same day, the BND chief asked Germany's federal prosecutors to drop their charges against Syrian intelligence agents who had been arrested in Germany for allegedly collecting information on Syrian dissidents.
The German intelligence report cites another deal, an "urgent request [by the United States] to avert pressure from the EU side [on Morocco] because of human-rights abuses in connection with [Zammar's]arrest, because Morocco was a valuable partner in the fight against terrorism." Grey, who had the report translated, says he obtained the classified report from a German investigator, who remains anonymous. The German government has acknowledged that they dropped the charges against the Syrian intelligence officers because of their cooperation in anti-terrorism, but they deny that the decision was specifically linked to the Zammar case.
With deep political mistrust between Syria and the United States, the two countries are hardly ready-made partners in the war on terrorism. Yet by the end of 2002, Zammar was one of at least four prisoners jailed in the Palestine Branch cells in Damascus who had landed there as part of the CIA renditions, according to the book, which is being published by St. Martin's Press. It is widely believed that Zammar, who has never been charged with anything, is still being held without trial in Syria at an unknown location. He was last heard from in 2005, when he sent a letter from Syria to his family in Germany through officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In interviews, three former prisoners jailed in the Damascus facility told Grey that they were regularly beaten by Syrian interrogators, and that they had been held in cells barely longer and wider than coffins. While in solitary confinement, they say they communicated with each other in snatched conversations through the walls, and sensed the presence of other prisoners also through their screams during torture sessions. One former prisoner told Grey that he had spoken through the walls with a jailed teenager, who told the man he had been transferred from Pakistan to Syria by U.S.agents. The adult prisoner recalled the teenager as being 15 or 16 years old. A Syrian government spokesman told Grey in Damascus last June that "a number of prisoners had been sent to them," but denied that any were tortured, and declined to discuss individual cases.
In cell 2 of the Palestine Branch was Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian telecommunications engineer, whose tale of captivity has since become a cause celebre in Canada. Arar had left Syria at age 17 and married a Tunisian fellow student at McGill University in Montreal. On his way home from a vacation in Tunisia in September 2002, he stopped to change planes at JFK Airport in New York City. There, FBI agents arrested him at an immigration control desk, and ordered him deported to his native Syria — even though he was traveling on a Canadian passport. He was flown on a chartered Gulfstream jet to Jordan and driven into Syria, to the Palestine Branch prison.
After days of beatings, Arar wrote a false statement saying he had been trained at a terror camp in Afghanistan. "I was ready to accept a 10, 20-year sentence, and say anything, just to get to another place," he tells Grey in the book. After nearly a year in captivity, Arar was released and flew home to his family in Canada. A 1,200-page Canadian government report last month absolved him of any suspicion. Arar sued the U.S. government, but a New York federal judge dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the case could not be heard for security reasons; Arar is now appealing that ruling. Last month's report by a Canadian judge rebuked Canadian and U.S. officials for arresting Arar on faulty information. Jordan has not commented on Arar's rendition.
Grey, a former South Asia correspondent and investigative reporter with the Sunday Times of London, says his interest in the CIA program was sparked in December 2001 by an off-hand remark made to him by Porter Goss, the former CIA Director who at the time was still a Republican congressman from Florida and head of the House intelligence committee. In an interview with Goss in his office on Capitol Hill, Grey asked if President Clinton should have arranged the secret kidnapping of Osama Bin Laden. Goss replied that such a program in fact e> xisted. "It's called a rendition. Do you know that?" he asked Grey. Grey did not, so Goss explained that it was "a polite way to take people out of action and bring them to some type of justice."
Grey says he then embarked on basic "shoe-leather reporting," criss-crossing between Washington, the Middle East, Europe and Pakistan over the next few years. Ultimately he detailed 89 renditions involving 87 prisoners, several of whom he says had not previously been documented. But Grey says he believes "hundreds" of others have not been identifed. In interviews, former CIA agents who had worked in the renditions program told Grey the numbers of renditions were "in the low hundreds." Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February last year that with rendered prisoners, "once out of our control, there is only so much we can do" to avoid torture. Goss, who near the end of his CIA tenure led an agency crackdown on leaks and fired an agent for being one of the sources for the Washington Post's reporting on the renditions program, has not directly confirmed his interview with Grey in 2001. His spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyke said in an E-mail that "although that may have been the first time Mr. Grey heard the term, it certainly is not the first time the U.S. government publicly discussed this decades old tool." Indeed, then-CIA Director William Webster told the Washington Post in 1989 that the Department of Justice had created the term "renditions" after the shootdown of the Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. The process was aimed at capturing those responsible abroad and bringing them back to the United States. Later, his successor George Tenet told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2000 that U.S. agents had, "working with foreign governments worldwide, helped to render more than two dozen terrorists to justice."
Grey says he obtained key evidence from an insider in the aviation industry — whom he has kept anonymous — who faxed him lengthy flight logs to his London home, allowing Grey to trace the paths of hundreds of supposedly secret CIA flights. Still, given the explosive nature of the CIA program, some details were astonishingly easy for Grey to find. The CIA neglected to cover their tracks in key areas. The agency did not request confidentiality on professional aviation tracking websites which allow certain flights to remain unrecorded for security reasons. The online databases helped fill out the details for Grey, who pieced together thousands of flight legs of CIA planes, and helped to confirm the reports of about 20 of the 89 renditions he detailed.
Some former CIA operatives, and at least one active CIA agent were willing — indeed occasionally eager — to describe the renditions process to Grey, perhaps because they feared that they would be ultimately held responsible while the White House strenuously denied that rendered prisoners were tortured abroad. One former CIA agent told Grey: "Everything we did, down to the tiniest detail, every rendition and every technique of interrogation used against prisoners in our hands, was scrutinized and approved by [CIA] headquarters. And nothing was done without approval from the White House — from Rice herself and with a signature from John Ashcroft," the former agent said, referring to Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Advisor at the time, and the then-Attorney General. Rice, quoted in Grey's book, told reporters last December that "the United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured." Michael Scheuer, the retired head of the CIA's unit on Osama Bin Laden and one of the architects of the renditions program, told Grey early last year in an interview that a team of lawyers within the Department of Justice "are involved in one way or another and ha> ve signed off on the procedure."
Curiously, according to Ghost Plane, the renditions teams left fingerprints in several places along their globe-trotting trail. They called home from their cell phones. In January 2004, a CIA team flying on a Boeing Business Jet, registered to Premier Executive Transport in Massachusetts — which Grey said appeared to list only one employee, and which has refused comment to Grey and other journalists — bedded down at the five-star Marriott Son Antem resort in Palma on Majorca, the Mediterranean island, after a long, grueling day: they had flown prisoners under cover of darkness from the Moroccan capital Rabat to Kabul, and then onto Algiers, before arriving in Palma.
The hotel bills, under their CIA cover names, show they made use of resort facilities, including the health spa. Later that year, the Milan anti-terrorism prosecutor Antonio Spataro began investigating whether CIA agents had rendered an Egyptian prisoner, Abu Omar—Osama Nasr, illegally from Italy. Spataro told Grey that among the findings that most surprised him was the high-ticket hotel bills in his city; two alleged CIA agents under the names of Monica Adler and John Duffin spent $18,000 in a three-week stay at the Milan Savoy. Spataro has since issued warrants for their arrest, along with that of other U.S. citizens, in connection with the kidnapping of Nasr, who was sent to Cairo from Milan.
More than two years before the CIA agents' stay in Palma, rendition teams had begun to be spotted at the scenes of prisoner transfers wearing black ski masks — a sure sign to onlookers that something odd was happening. Six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, an employee at Karachi International Airport told a Pakistani reporter that a U.S.private jet had arrived to collect a prisoner in a quiet corner of the facility, and was "so mysterious that all persons involved in the operation, including U.S. troops [sic.], were wearing masks."
Paul Forrell, a Swedish border official, described to Grey in January 2005 how the Gulfstream V jet N379P, also registered to Premier Executive Transport, touched down at Bromma, an airport used for small aircraft, one night in December, 2001, while he was on duty. They were there to collect two Egyptian asylum-seekers living in Stockholm, whose deportation to Cairo had been approved earlier that day by Swedish cabinet members. On board the jet were American men wearing black ski masks — who joined two men in business suits, who introduced themselves as coming from the U.S. Embassy, in Forrell's office — and two Egyptian officials; a subsequent Swedish parliamentary investigation confirmed the two other men were Egyptian officials. The prisoners were transferred within an hour, and the Gulfstream flew on to Cairo, where the two men were finally jailed. Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Nazif last year told NBC's Meet the Press that between 60 and 70 prisoners had been transferred into their jails by the United States.
Seven months later, the same jet flew into Islamabad near midnight, and extracted three terror suspects. One was Binyan Mohammed, an Ethiopian student living in London, whom Pakistani security officials had arrested in Karachi. The CIA plane then flew the three men to Rabat, touching down at 3:40 a.m., while most people in the Moroccan capital were asleep; Mohammed has since been declared an enemy combatant and moved to Guantanamo, where he remains in legal limbo. Poring over the flight logs, Grey concluded it was 28th time CIA jets had touched down in Morocco since the 9/11 attacks. Last year, Grey asked Morocco's Interior Ministry for confirmation, in written questions submitted through the Moroccan Embassy in London; the emailed reply said no CIA flight had ever visited the Kingdom.