THE MEN IN BLACK
Registration: N379P Type: Gulfstream V
Operator: Premier Executive Transport, Massachusetts
Date 17 December 2001 Flight plan:
Johnston County, North Carolina (dep. 7:13 P.M.)
Dulles, Washington, DC
Dulles, Washington, DC (dep. 9:15 P.M.)
Cairo, Egypt (arr. 3:19 P.M.) 18 December Cairo, Egypt (dep. 4:43 P.M.)Stockholm, Sweden (arr. 8:43 P.M.) Stockholm, Sweden (dep. 9:48 P.M.)Cairo, Egypt (arr. 3:30 P.M.)
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, BROMMA AIRPORT, DECEMBER 18, 2001, 8:20 P.M.It was a dark and chilly night when the two cars pulled up within two yards of an entrance door to the airport's small security office. The sky was clear, and with a breeze blowing from the southwest,the temperature hovered just above freezing. It was approaching the worst of the near Arctic winter. The sun had set more than five hours ago.1
Paul Forell, a uniformed officer of the border police with twenty-five years' experience, was already at his post inside and completing some paperwork. It was then a group of plainclothes detectives walked in, officers of the Swedish security police, known as SAPO. They said that the deportation operation was getting under way. Ten minutes later, two Americans dressed in suits walked into Forell's office. Both were about thirty-five years old. They gave their first names and said they were from the U.S. Embassy. They obviously knew the SAPO officers already, he recalled,2
As they were speaking, and just before 9:00 P.M., an American-registered Gulfstream V jet was touching down on the 5,400-foot runway. Some of the SAPO officers went to meet the U.S. plane, and found onboard a security team of "seven or eight, among them a doctor and two Egyptian officials." In the cars parked outside Forell's police station, dressed in ordinary clothes but in handcuffs, were two other Egyptian citizens, both suspected terrorists under arrest and awaiting deportation. The security team from the plane reached the parked cars and, one at a time, brought the arrested men inside. Everything now went very fast.3
"I think there were four or five people who were around every suspect, so it was at least twelve or fifteen persons in my little station. The first guy was coming in, they asked, 'What room can I use?' So I just showed them inside there [an inner room] and pointed with my fingers." Forell described the agents as wearing black masks, with small holes that showed their eyes.4
IN the crowded office with Forell were now several SAPO and other plainclothes police officers, two Americans in suits, about eight agents in masks, and an interpreter, too. What happened next would later cause a political crisis in Stockholm. The Americans were operating on Swedish soil, and officially this was simply a Swedish deportation. But Forell watched as his SAPO colleagues allowed the U.S. agents to take the prisoners one by one into the small, separate changing room to carry out what the Americans described as a "security check." According to a later inquiry, this security check included "a body search, their clothes were cut to pieces and placed in bags, their hair was thoroughly examined, as were their oral cavities and ears. In addition they were handcuffed and their ankles fettered. Each was then dressed in an overall and photographed. Finally loose hoods without holes for their eyes were placed over their heads."5 Meanwhile, Forell stayed behind watching from the public premises. Later, one of the Egyptiansreported that he had been given some kind of sedative, which had been administered by suppository. It left him drowsy.
Throughout, said Forell, the masked Americans kept very quiet. "They were talking very, very swiftly. And quiet. So I couldn't understand what they were saying ... . And as I said before, they were acting very professional." Forell thought the whole incident very strange. "My Swedish colleagues, they didn't give me any information [on] what the case was about. The only thing they were telling me was that [these are] two prisoners that are suspected for terrorists, and that's it."6 He continued: "There was one thing I kept thinking of a little: It is a little extraordinary that we had not been contacted about the plane, because all aircraft that come from [outside of the European passport-free zone] are to contact the police, and no one informed us that an American plane would land at Bromma."7
The two Egyptian prisoners were loaded onto the Gulfstream. Both were strapped down on mattresses at the rear. The plane finally took off into the dark, moonless sky at 9:49 P.M.8
What happened that night at Bromma Airport had given Paul Forell and his colleagues a glimpse into a secret system of prisoner transfers. The security team involved was from the CIA. And in the following years these men in black masks would be spotted again and again in locations across the world. In fact, a month before the Swedish case, a reporter in Pakistan had got wind of these men when they came to pick up another prisoner. "The entire operation was so mysterious that all persons involved in the operation, including U.S. troops, were wearing masks," a source at Karachi airport told the reporter.9
In Gambia, West Africa, a British resident was loaded on the same plane the following year and saw "big people in black balaclavas."10 In Pakistan, another Londoner was put on a plane to Morocco by operatives "dressed in black, with masks, wearing what looked like Timberland boots."11 In Macedonia, a German was handed over to a CIA team that consisted of "seven to eight men all dressed in black, with black gloves and wearing black masks. All you could see was their eyes."12
The means of transport of this security team was always a luxury business jet, often the Gulfstream used in Sweden. A glance at the records of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would show the plane, with a registration N379P, belonged to a company in Dedham, Massachusetts, called Premier Executive Transport Services. But this official ownership record was a sham, a cover story. Its real home was an airport in North Carolina and in a blue hangar, screened by pine trees, at the headquartersof a company called Aero Contractors Ltd. This was a front company that, as I found out, was directly run for the CIA itself. So what was going on in Sweden, and in all these cases?
SMITHFIELD, NORTH CAROLINA, JOHNSTON COUNTY AIRPORT, ONE NIGHT EARLIERIt was a warm and overcast night when the crew of the Gulfstream gathered for the first leg of their 16,400-mile trip.13 Their first stop, as always, would be a safe in the company's office. Here they would pick up their passports and pilots' licenses, all made out in false names. These men were among the country's finest aviators. They were prepared, at a drop of a hat, to fly a mission to almost anywhere: to land on a tiny strip in a jungle swamp, to take off uphill or downhill in fearsome winds, and to brave enemy gunfire as they did so. Tonight's mission was not so hair-raising. But these men were CIA pilots, and so they traveled undercover.14
The Johnston County airport was in the town of Smithfield, a sleepy place less than an hour's drive out of the state capital of Raleigh. Probably its only claim to fame was when General Sherman stood outside the courthouse in April 1865 and heard news of the surrender of Robert E. Lee's Confederate armies at Appomattox.15 On a Sunday, when I visited, its streets resounded with Harley-Davidsons heading for their local hangout, the Last Resort Bar. Nothing here seemed to move very fast. Even the Harleys kept to the speed limit. But the small airport, surrounded by tobacco fields, pine forests, and some small industries, had been chosen by the CIA precisely because it was so quiet. It was also close to Fort Bragg, home of Special Forces, whose operators often joined the CIA's paramilitary missions.16
In the darkness that December evening, the Gulfstream was rolled out of its blue metal hanger. After final checks, the plane took off at 7:13 P.M. and headed north for the 30-minute flight to Washington DC. It was at Dulles, the closest suitable airport to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, that the airmen picked up their first passengers. These were the men and women, including a doctor, from the Rendition Group. They had black masks stuffed into their bags. At 9:36 P.M. the Gulfstream took off from Dulles and set a course across the Atlantic. Its destination was Cairo, Egypt.
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, THE ROSENBAD PALACE, DECEMBER 18, 2001, 11:45 A.M.Göran Persson, the prime minister, was with his cabinet of ten in his official residence, across the lake from his country's parliament. They sat around a large oval table, considering an agenda of forty-eight items. All had to be completed by lunchtime.17 Officially, at least, the decision to request U.S. assistance had not beentaken. But by now the CIA's Gulfstream was crossing the Mediterranean, already embarked on its mission on behalf of Sweden. Anna Lindh, the foreign minister, now asked the cabinet to make a small but momentous decision: the rejection of a claim for asylum and immediate expulsion of the two Egyptian terror suspects under the Swedish Aliens Act.18 The cabinet was said to take less than a minute to grant their approval.19 As soon as they were informed, immigration officials began completing their final paperwork. At 4:00 P.M. an official letter was posted by registered delivery to the two men's lawyers that announced their expulsion. The deportation operation, however, was already swinging into action.
Fifteen minutes' walk from Persson's residence, an immigration lawyer was sitting at his desk in his downtown office. Kjell Jönsson was completing a rather ordinary day. At about 5:00 P.M., he was on the phone to one of his many clients, an asylum seeker from Egypt named Mohammed al-Zery. Al-Zery was speaking from his workplace, a bakery café selling Middle Eastern pastries in Stockholm's concrete suburb of Spänga, "Suddenly there was a voice interrupting our conversation," remembered Jönsson. "I heard someone say in Swedish: 'Hang up the telephone.' It was the police, who had come to arrest him." It was the last time Jonsson would speak to his client for more than two years. Just a few minutes before al-Zery's arrest, the other Egyptian, Ahmed Agiza, was also picked up by the security police. He was at a bus stop in the town of Karlstad on his way back from Swedish language classes in Stockholm. The time of his arrest was 4:55 P.M.
Unknown to Jönsson, his client was a wanted man. Egypt had issued arrest warrants for both al-Zery and Agiza. The Swedish state had accepted that both were technically refugees, because both could expect to be persecuted if they returned to their home country. Even if that asylum claim was rejected, both men would normally have a right to appeal. Sweden, after all, was a liberal country. But the security police, SAPO, had presented some additional secret information against the men that, under Swedish law, allowed normal judicial proceedings to be bypassed. Both, it was held, were members of an illegal terrorist organization. Today, in an unusual fashion, the Swedish cabinet had functioned as both judge and jury. It was SAPO and the CIA now that would execute their guilty verdict. By the time Jonsson called the ministry to check for news, he was told his client was already in Cairo. "I was given no hint about how this deportation was carried out," he said.
One hour before the arrests, the CIA plane had already taken off from Cairo. Its route now took it northwest across Europe. The CIA had picked up the two Egyptian officers. The idea was that legally speaking the twoprisoners would never be in U.S. custody. America, on this occasion, would just be a travel agency. For the return flight from Stockholm to Cairo, the team was augmented by a Swedish security officer and an interpreter. The CIA had originally said there was no room for any Swedes but later they had relented. The Swedes saw the men's handcuffs, ankle chains, and hoods were kept on for the entire flight. In his own notes, the Swedish officer recorded that the men "were kept under observation for the entire time and the guards were changed every other hour. The doctor in the escort inspected them all the time (Agiza and al-Zery were probably given a tranquillizer by the doctor before take-off)." Just after 3:30 A.M. local time the plane reached Cairo. It was met by Egyptian security officials, and the prisoners were driven off in a transit van. The Swedes considered their work done.20
For the flight crew of the jet from North Carolina, it was off to a hotel for some rest. For the two arrested men it was off to visit Egyptian intelligence. The interrogations, they said later, began the same night, and it would be five weeks before they received a visitor.
CAIRO, EGYPT, LAZOGHLY SQUARE, OCTOBER 2003It was a sweltering day as I walked through downtown Cairo. It was here I had begun my investigations into rendition, and my destination was one of the city's most feared places. I had walked over from Egypt's Museum of Antiquities. Fifteen minutes later I reached a square compound with black-painted walls and white pillbox windows. There were fixed machine guns on each corner. This jail building was the headquarters of Egyptian State Security (ESS), the internal secret police. It was also an interrogation center. I had an appointment, I thought, with a secret policeman inside. I entered through the public entrance, passing through a metal detector, and sat in a waiting room. Around me there were family groups, chattering nervously. Some clutched photographs of their missing relatives. After about fifteen minutes an official came to send me away. There would be no comment today.
I had begun in Egypt because of what I'd heard: It was to Egypt that the United States was sending its prisoners. One source spoke of a secret prison, constructed by the United States since 9/11, especially for their rendered prisoners. He heard it was in Upper Egypt, near the Aswan dam. I never did confirm that rumor. What I did find out were the basicshow exactly this country treats its own prisoners. I called the Egyptian Ministry of Information, the channel for all journalists' queries, and asked for an official interview with the security agencies. That request was declined, but a helpful press officer suggested I speak to someone else, a lawyernamed Montasser al-Zayat, who represented many of the prisoners. Al-Zayat was an intriguing figure, part dissident and part government intermediary. He once knew Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy. He also had helped negotiate the country's most important ceasefirethe ending of hostilities by the Gama'a al'Islamiyya terrorist group. These were the ones behind the Luxor Massacre.21 Meeting me in his office, al-Zayat said he'd heard much about the Americans' transfer of prisoners. "We have heard of full airplanes arriving at night," he said, "but these prisoners are kept very, very isolated. It's really difficult to learn more." Cairo's government argued that terrorist suspects were dealt with according to the law and were brought to an open trial, albeit in a military not a civil court. Before the prisoner came to court he had the chance to meet and discuss his treatment not only with a prosecutor but also with his own lawyer. But al-Zayat explained the government's trick: "When a prisoner is sent back to Egypt, he basically disappears for up to three months. That's when he is interrogated and tortured, and when he is allowed no visitors. Only after that, when his wounds are healing, does he see the prosecutor and have visitors." Some, he explained, never reached that stage and simply remained disappeared. Later I visited other lawyers who confirmed these stories. Most had been imprisoned themselves at one time or another. They knew these matters at first hand.22
The final destination for Islamist prisoners, most said, was generally a prison on the outskirts of the city known as the Torah Prison and its inner maximum security compound known as al-Aqrab, or the Scorpion. This was where Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zery were being held. One evening, I joined friends for a sunset cruise up the Nile. It was from this boat, as I sipped a glass of wine, that I first saw the prison's forbidding watchtowers. Within these walls had been held, at one time or other, some of the world's most infamous terrorists. The torture they received there, said many, had also helped inspire some of their most extreme ideas.23 Journalists who approached much closer without permission could expect a quick invitation to a police cell.
By now, on this, my first trip to Cairo, the story of Agiza and al-Zery was well known, all of it apart from the involvement of the CIA. Ushered from the airport, I was to learn, they had been taken first to the offices of Egypt's General Intelligence Service (EGIS), its foreign intelligence service. Run since 1993 by General Omar Suleiman, a close friend of the West, this was the spy agency that had the closest links with America and the CIA.24 From there they were transferred to Lazoghly Square, the headquarters of state security. They were shuttled between there and the agency's new annex in western Cairo for interrogation. Finally they made it to the TorahPrison, itself a feared place of detention and torture, but at least somewhere they could at last receive visitors. Although Sweden had promised to visit the two prisoners and check on their treatment, it was only when the prisoners arrived in Torah that that country's diplomats got access to them, more than four weeks after their arrival. According to the two men, they had been treated brutally from the moment of their arrival. Jönsson, al-Zery's lawyer, said his client received horrific treatment for more than two months after he arrived, at the hands of Suleiman's intelligence agents, at state security, and finally in the Torah prison. "Al-Zery was exposed to torture," said Jonsson. "He was kept in a very cold, very small cell, and he was beaten. The most painful thing was the electrical torture that he was exposed to, where electrodes were put to all sensitive parts of his body many timesall under surveillance by a medical doctor."25
Interviewed later in Cairo, Agiza's mother, Hamida Shalibai, who visited her son in prison many times, described his account of his treatment: "When he arrived in Egypt, they took him, while hooded and handcuffed, to a building. He was led to an underground facility, going down a staircase. Then, they started interrogation, and torture. Whenever they would ask him a question, and he provided the answer, they wouldn't do anything. But as soon as he was asked a question, and he replied by 'don't know,' they would apply electric shocks to his body, and beat him. All of this was happening while he was naked. He was completely naked, without any clothes to cover his body! Not even underwear! He almost froze to death."26
BACK in Sweden at the end of 2001, the deportation of the two Egyptians had been portrayed by the government as evidence of Sweden's support for the war on terror, as indeed it was. Two days after the expulsion the Associated Press (AP) headlined an article "Swedish Government Repatriates Two Suspected Terrorists." Gun-Britt Andersson, a foreign ministry official, declared: "We have clear evidence that they have had leading positions in organizations that have committed terrorist acts."27 As the news broke in the United States, one terrorism expert explained to the Boston Globe how the deportation signaled a shift in attitudes. "It's much more important than just between Egypt and Sweden," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. European countries "clearly understand that they are with the United States in fighting the terrorist menace, and they know that they have to do so despite the fact that they may draw domestic political criticism," he said.28
As the Associated Press then reported, Agiza had been one of Egypt's most wanted. He had been sentenced to twenty-five years in jail in 1999 after being convicted in his absence by a military court. Egypt had accused Agiza of being a key member of Islamic Jihad, one of the regime's fiercest foes, and of helping plot the 1995 bomb attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was also said to have once been close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former leader of Egypt's Islamic Jihad, and had even met bin Laden himself.29
In contrast to Agiza's known charge sheet, few were able to find much evidence of any accusations against al-Zery. Egypt was said to be preparing charges against him. It was not clear what they were.
I later interviewed an Egyptian activist in London who had a theory of why both the United States and Sweden suddenly took an interest in al-Zery. On October 23, fifty-six days before the Gulfstream came to Sweden, Yasser al-Sirri, an Egyptian dissident and campaigner for prisoners' rights, was arrested in London.30 Scotland Yard questioned and charged al-Sirri over his alleged involvement in the murder of the Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in a suicide bomb attack just before September 11. Al-Sirri was later cleared of these charges. A judge described him as an "innocent fall guy."31 But at the time of his October arrest, Scotland Yard had seized al-Sirri's computer hard drive and fax machine. The computer contained details of all the people he was in contact with. That information, he was told, was immediately shared with the U.S. authorities. And among those contacts on al-Sirri's computer was an Egyptian in Sweden, Mohammed al-Zery.
"He asked me for help in many things. He wanted help with his asylum claim, and he was even asking for help in finding a wife," said al-Sirri, interviewed in London a few years after his release. In the days that followed his arrest in London, al-Sirri discovered later, up to a dozen people in his computer address book and among his files were arrested around the world. They included friends and relations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, and Sweden. Prior to his arrest, he later revealed, al-Zery had warned that an Egyptian secret agent had visited Sweden to spy on him. "He worked in a café: There was an Egyptian who found him there and followed him home and tried to speak to him. We later discovered he was a general in the Egyptian secret intelligence," said al-Sirri.32
As soon as the deportations were first revealed in Sweden, there was criticism from human rights activists. Amnesty International warned that the men were "at grave risk of torture,"33 In the months ahead there was to be a relentless campaign against the Swedish government over thedecision, still ongoing when I visited Cairo in October 2003. But one thing had not yet been made public: the involvement of American agents, and the U.S. Gulfstream jet.
FOR the Swedish, with their long record as champions of human rights, the key to the Egyptian deportation was a series of guarantees negotiated with Cairo not only that both the men "would not be subjected to inhuman treatment or punishment of any kind" but also that Swedish diplomats could check their treatment by frequent visits to them in prison and by attending their trials. Time and again, in the months that followed, Persson and his officials and ministers stressed the frequent visits that Swedish diplomats made to see the two men in prison in Cairo. Yet with their reputations at stake, the Swedish ministers kept quiet not only about how the men were sent to Egypt. They also lied about the two men's protests about torture.
On January 30, 2002, Jonsson was called in by Swedish immigration officials and was assured that there had been "no complaints of physical violence."34 In a letter to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) on March 8, 2002, the Swedish government spoke of how Ambassador Sven Linder had first been to see Ahmed Agiza on January 23. They declared: "To the Swedish ambassador Ahmed Agiza conveyed no complaint about torture, or how he had been treated." Later, in another letter to the UN committee, dated May 6, 2003, the Swedish government asserted that Agiza's now public complaints of having been tortured were not credible and "the Government has had no information which casts doubts over this conclusion."
But this information was false. The government had released to its own parliament and to the United Nations an edited copy of Ambassador Linder's report from Cairo after his first meeting with the two prisoners. It stated:
Agiza and Al Zery had just been transferred to the Torah prison after having been interrogated for thirty days at the security service's facilities in another part of Cairo. Their treatment in the Torah prison was "excellent." [REDACTED SECTION] It is not possible for me to assess the veracity of these claims. However, I am able to note that the two men did not, not even on my direct questions, in any way claim that they had been subjected to any kind of systematic, physical torture and that they consider themselves to be well treated in the Torah prison.35
The emphasis about Torah prison was misleading. The men's interrogation, as the lawyer al-Zayat had warned me, had taken place before theyarrived there. But at that first meeting, Agiza had made a series of allegations. This was what the redacted section said:
They had a number of complaints ... excessive brutality on the part of the Swedish police ... forced to remain in uncomfortable positions in the airplane during the transport to Egypt; forced to be blindfolded during the interrogation period; detention in too small cells 1.5x1.5 meters during the same period; lack of sleep due to surveillance in the cells; a delay of ten days before Agiza, following a medical examination, had access again to his medication for gastric ulcer; blows from guards while transported to and from interrogation; threats from interrogator that there could be consequences for Agiza's family if he did not tell everything about his time in Iran etc.
These were not, perhaps, allegations of actual torture. The men's detailed descriptions of their torture came later. But to state, as the Swedish had done, that Agiza "conveyed no complaint about torture, or how he had been treated" (emphasis added) was clearly false. The Swedish had assured the UN that Egypt's promises of fair treatment had been met, and that it had "not received any information which could cast doubt on this conclusion."36 Again, it was a lie. In another report it also stated that "Agiza said on 23rd Jan that he had no complaints as to his treatment in prison."37 Again, it was a lie. Later, the UN committee ruled that Sweden had "committed a breach of its obligations" by not "disclosing to the Committee relevant information" and by not voicing its concerns.38
The problem with assurances of good treatment by countries like Egypt was that they were almost impossible to enforce. Torture in Egypt is sophisticated. It is designed not to leave marks. Agiza and al-Zery's claims of torture could ultimately never be proved. While Swedish diplomats might diligently meet the prisoners in jail, those interviews were conducted in the presence of Egyptian intelligence officers. And even if they weren't, the prisoners would know they would face reprisals if any kind of reports of torture in the jails emerged. The same problem would occur time and again when other countries tried to enforce promises by Arab states to treat their prisoners well.
Both Ambassador Linder and Agiza's mother saw Agiza in prison for the first time on January 23, 2002. Each had different impressions. The ambassador thought Agiza looked well. His mother said he looked badly beaten and immediately complained of torture. On February 11, a correspondent from Swedish radio was allowed access to Agiza in jail, again with Egyptian intelligence officers present. He reported Agiza had a limp.When asked directly if he was being tortured, Agiza refused to answer the question.
It took until the spring of 2003 for Agiza to have the confidence to speak to the Swedish diplomats of the torture he said he had endured, including electric shock treatment. They would not believe his story. In truth, there were few ways of verifying it. No independent doctor was allowed access to the prisoner, and the marks of electric shocks are easy to conceal. On April 10, 2004, Agiza was finally put on trial in Egypt's Thirteenth Superior Military Court. Violating Egypt's written promises, Swedish diplomats were excluded from the first two hearings.39 When Agiza's lawyer requested an adjournment so he could read two thousand pages of charging material and prepare a defense, he was given just three days. Then the court rejected requests to call independent witnesses or to order a medical examination. On April 27, Agiza was sentenced to twenty-five years, later reduced to fifteen years, on a charge of holding a leading position within the Vanguards of Conquest, a wing of Islamic Jihad. Al-Zery meanwhile was quietly released after no charges were brought against him. But he was held effectively under house arrest and banned from talking about his time in jail on pain of being sent back to prison. Jonsson, his lawyer, however, was adamant that he had obtained evidence that proved the depravity of al-Zery's treatment. His problem was that by protesting too loudly, he could get al-Zery into further trouble.
As the UN Committee was to conclude, there was no way of verifying the men's claims of torture, but Egypt had breached one clear promise in the case of Agizathat of a fair trial. It was a concern I heard acknowledged from a Swedish diplomat I met in Cairo. "The key thing for us is the lack of fair trial. That's what we're watching out for," he said.40 Until 2004 what both Egypt and Sweden had done was to exclude any mention of the role of the United States in this whole case. No one apart from a handful of Swedish officials and secret agents were aware of the team of rendition agents, or the role of the Gulfstream jet.
JUST a month after Agiza's trial, the secret of the Swedish case was finally revealed. A team of three Swedish TV journalists broadcast on May 17, 2004, the results of a five-month investigation and called their documentary "The Broken Promise." Its conclusions were clear-cut. They could reveal "it was a foreign intelligence agency that abducted the two men out of Sweden." Masked U.S. agents had been allowed to operate on Swedish territory. They commented that "a few months after the attack on World Trade Center, Sweden accepted to become a pawn in the United States's worldwide manhunt."41
Unaware of the Swedish case, and by pure coincidence, just three days before, writing in the British magazine New Statesman. I had published my first account of rendition and the CIA's secret fleet of planes, describing how the agency made use of a "fleet of luxury planes," including Gulfstreams, which, together with military transports, had moved prisoners around the world since September 11. "Some of the prisoners have gone to Guantanamo, the US interrogation centre at its naval base in Cuba," I wrote. "Hundreds more have been transferred from one Middle Eastern or Asian country to anothercountries where the prisoners can be more easily interrogated."42
What the Swedish journalists had done was obtain the actual flight plan and the U.S. registration numberN379Pof the Gulfstream plane. It was this information that was the starting point that helped me to track down thousands of flights by the CIA around the globe. Soon after the documentary, its claims were confirmed officially. Two documents were released. One memo from SAPO, dated February 7, 2002 (the same day that President Bush announced publicly that Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners were not protected by the Geneva Conventions), revealed that "the American side" had offered to help in the deportation "by lending a plane for the transport." Lawyers at the Swedish justice department also wrote another memo that said that "the transport from Sweden to Egypt was carried out with the help of American authorities."43
But was this plane just a special charter? And was the CIA really involved? Was it the FBI or Pentagon? It took a further inquiry by Sweden's parliamentary ombudsman, Mats Melin, to prove the point. Arne Andersson, the head of the SAPO deportation operation, finally confirmed to him how they were glad to accept a CIA offer. He said: "In the end we accepted an offer from our American friends, so to say, their counterpart service, the CIA, in getting access to a plane that had direct overflight permits over all of Europe and could do the deportation in a very quick way." The Swedish case was now officially exposed as part of a CIA secret program known as rendition.
JUST two months after 9/11, and several weeks before the Swedish rendition, President George Bush was standing next to President Chirac of France when he declared that Allied nations needed to do more than express sympathy but "must perform." With a barely concealed threat, Bush announced on November 6 that over time coalition partners would be "held accountable for inactivity." That would mean "different things for different nations. Some nations don't want to contribute troops, and we understand that. Other nations can contribute intelligence sharing ... . Butall nations, if they want to fight terror, must do something." He added: "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror."
The United States would thus demand, not ask, for support in the war on terror. Across the globe nations were already responding to 9/11 not only by pledging support but by helping practically: committing troops and assets for the invasion of Afghanistan; opening vaults of intelligence on Islamic militant groups; and coordinating arrest operations of hundreds of militant suspects. Many of these offers of help were announced publicly. But of course there was also much that was secret, including plans for a worldwide traffic in prisoners.
Since 9/11 it had been fashionable to be "thinking out of the box" and developing new methods of warfare against this new threat of terrorism. But while unconventional approaches were saluted publicly, what was not announced was how, in dealing with its new prisoners, the U.S. government proposed to abandon the rule of law on a large scale. In the sort of double-think language George Orwell in his novel 1984 had called "newspeak," the new measures would not be described as "illegal" but instead U.S. officials called the system "extralegal." In common language that meant outside any law, or in more a pejorative word, "outlaw."
The objective of the extralegal system was to take prisoners beyond the protection of any lawyer, U.S. courtroom, or even military tribunal. Terrorists would be dealt with, by preference, in a country that would handle them with the harshness the politicians believed they deserved. CIA officers were more pragmatic. For them, in the face of weaknesses in both U.S. law and policy, transferring beyond U.S. jurisdiction was both more practical and more efficient. This system came to be known as extraordinary rendition, and one of the key vehicles of these transfers was the plane from North Carolina.
The word "rendition" in our context means the transfer of a prisoner by U.S. government agents without any kind of formal extradition proceedings or legal hearing. As described in Chapter 6, such operations had been legal under U.S. law since the 1880s. But the "snatch," as it was often called, had nearly always been geared to bringing the prisoner home to face justice in a U.S. courtroom. As the United States confronted Al Qaeda, this principle was weakened, and the extraordinary rendition program came to be adopted. This term "extraordinary rendition" was never an official one and, when used, has been defined in many ways. When I use the term, I refer to what became the CIA's principal tactic: the transfer of a prisoner by U.S. agents to any place but an American of court of law.
Since 9/11, such extraordinary renditions had occurred across the world. Prisoners were captured and transported by America not only fromthe war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, but from countries including Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, the Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Zambia, the Gambia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Prisoners were taken from these countries to a slightly smaller list of destinations, including Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Thailand.
Determining the exact scale of the program was always going to be hard and imprecise, because the details of these transfers were kept classified by the CIA. George Tenet, when director of the CIA, testified to seventy renditions in the (unspecified) years leading up to 9/11, of which some twenty were brought to trial in the United States.44 Since 9/11, no figures were given officially, although CIA officials speaking anonymously told journalists of a total of 100 to 150 transfers.45
My own research would suggest the total number of renditions ran into many, many hundreds. From my own case files, I collected a list, published in the appendix, of eighty-nine renditions since 9/11, involving eighty-seven different individuals. But this list was a gross understatement, since only a small fraction of captured prisoners had been released to tell their stories or were able to pass their accounts out of jail through their families or lawyers. Since 9/11, Pakistan claimed to have captured more than six hundred Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, of which the majority, said its officials, were rendered into U.S. custody. Iran said it captured over one thousand; most of these were handed over to U.S. control (although generally not directly). Egypt described the transfer of sixty to seventy into its jails alone. Sudan had acknowledged transferring fourteen into U.S. custody, and its officials spoke of sending dozens more directly to Egypt. The key destinations of Jordan, Syria, Morocco, and Uzbekistan never provided any official figures on the prisoners they received, even though I had detailed information that they each received large numbers.46
Renditions were not only carried out by the CIA but also, in greater numbers, by the U.S. military. Of the more than six thousand prisoners captured in the Afghan conflict by the end of 2001,47 many were rendered to their home countriesin official terms "repatriated"for example, to Uzbekistan.48 According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), international law required a hearing or independent review before anyone was repatriated to a country where they might fear abuse.49 No such hearings, according to U.S. officials I interviewed, were ever carried out. The transfers of more than seven hundred prisoners to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were renditions too, since none were recognized officially as prisoners of war; all were international transfers without legal process or treaty. Studies of the case files of those at Guantánamo also show that the majority, contrary to popular belief, had been rendered into U.S. custody from outside theAfghanistan combat zone. Within four years of the opening of the Guantánamo prison, over 300 had been rendered back to their home countries, where they were either released or imprisoned again. In all, by my estimate, the military had carried out more than one thousand renditions.
THERE was one problem with all these transfers. The United States had signed a series of treaties both against torture and also regulating its treatment of prisoners captured in a time of war. After 9/11, when many prisoners were captured as part of the declared war on terror, and many were initially detained by the military in war zones such as Afghanistan, one of the big obstacles was the Geneva Conventions. As described later, these conventions demanded that prisoners be treated humanely and be given access to the Red Cross. They also, more importantly, placed strong restrictions on interrogations. In theory, prisoners could be compelled to answer little more than "name, rank and serial number." The convention on prisoners of war states bluntly that "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind ... ."50
Under the laws of war, the United States did have extensive rights to hold prisoners without charge, for the duration of an international armed conflict. But the neutral ICRC would argue that such rights broadly ceased in the Afghan conflict with the establishment of a new government in the summer of 2002.51 Moreover, the ICRC said prisoners captured outside the Afghan or Iraq war zoneswho, according to other sources, formed the vast majority of rendered terrorist suspectswere not subject to the laws of war but rather to the normal rights of criminal suspects found in human rights law and domestic lawfor example, the right to challenge a detention in a civilian court of law.
The problem then for the U.S. administration was that in the logic of the global war on terror, many prisoners were captured for the very purpose of questioning. So the solution chosen by President Bush was to treat all captured terrorist suspects, wherever seized, as detainees held by the United States under wartime powers, with no rights as civilians. But, regarding the global conflict with Al Qaeda in this way as a war, he would abandon the Geneva Conventions, or at least those parts of the Conventions not considered appropriate by "military necessity."52 Prisoners would be transferred and questioned at will, even if he directed that in the military's hands, treatment should continue to be humane.53 With the terrorist threat proven by 9/11, the attempt to gather intelligence was paramount.
Another big problem for renditions was Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture that prohibited any state from transferring a prisoner to a country where there was substantial risk that he or she would be tortured. This convention was ratified into U.S. law by Congress, with the only proviso that what constituted torture would be defined by U.S. domestic law. Almost by definition, renditions involve the transfer to countries where the rule of law was weak and therefore they were much more likely to tolerate torture. Countries with a strong legal system would rarely allow the transfer of prisoners without a proper extradition procedure. And in practice, rendition was also directed largely at Middle East Islamic militants, who were to be returned to mainly Arab countries. All of these had track records of using torture. It was almost endemic.
Just as Sweden had done in the case of Agiza and al-Zery, the United States found a fig leaf to provide legal protection for renditions. Countries like Egypt were asked to provide a promise that they would not torture an individual prisoner. In this way, the United States would argue, there were no grounds for imagining a "substantial risk" of torture. The downside was that when it came from a country like Egypt it would be hard going to persuade anyone to believe that assurance. Most CIA insiders never bothered. As we shall see, they told the White House all along that anyone sent to Egypt would, almost certainly, be treated very brutally.
EGYPT was a country plagued by terrorism, having suffered more than fifty attacks in the years before 9/11. It had dealt with the problem with ruthless repression.54
In light of Egypt's record, few in Europe, or most Western countries, had been ready to send prisoners to face trial in Cairo. That is why the Swedish case was such an exception. For years, British prime ministers had tried to persuade their civil servants to approve extraditions to Egypt. Yet, time and again, the diplomats warned in none too welcome language that a passage to Cairo was a passage to the torture chamber. One former U.K. diplomat recalled seeing an Egyptian dossier of evidence compiled against Yasser al-Sirri, the dissident in London mentioned earlier. "When I saw the file, it was like you could almost see the fingernails attached of the people they had questioned," he said.
The United States, and the CIA in particular, had never felt quite as constrained as the Europeans. On the quiet, secret renditions to dark dungeons had always been a part of its covert life. According to Robert Baer, who had twenty-one years working in the Middle East for the CIA until he left in the mid-1990s, renditions were always about more than sending terrorists to be locked up in countries like Egypt. It was also about makingthem talk, and different countries had different values. As he has remarked memorably: "If you send a prisoner to Jordan, you get a better interrogation. If you send a prisoner, for instance, to Egypt, you will probably never see him again; the same way with Syria."55
Countries like Syria might have been publicly classified as enemies of the United States, even as candidate members of Bush's "Axis of Evil," but they remained allies in the secret war against Islamic militancy. Said Baer: "The simple rule is, 'My enemy's enemy is my friend,' in the Middle East, and that's the way it works. All of these countries are suffering in one way or another from Islamic fundamentalism, militant Islam."
For years the Syrians had offered to work with the United States against Islamic militancy. "So at least until September 11 these offers were turned down. We generally avoided the Egyptians and the Syrians because they were so brutal." One way or another, said Baer, the CIA had been carrying out renditions for years. What had changed since 9/11 was the scale of the thing. It became large scale and systematic. According to Baer, hundreds of prisoners had been captured and sent by the United States to Middle Eastern prisonsmany more than had been sent to Guantánamo, "September 11 justified scrapping the Geneva Conventions," he said. It was the end of "our rule of law as we knew it in the West."56
EVER since the Camp David accords of 1978, no country in the Middle East bar Israel has been such a crucial ally for America as Egypt.57 Their relationship has been cemented, above all, by money. Egypt receives more than $2 billion a year from the U.S. taxpayer, over 50 percent of which comes in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF), which provides grants that enable Egypt to buy military goods, services, and training from the United States.58 The two main recipients of FMF have been Israel and Egypt.59 Since 1986, Egypt had typically received around $1.3 billion annually from the FMF program alone.
In the world of renditions, Egypt has been torture central. Starting in the mid-1990s, as we shall see, more than one hundred prisoners were dispatched to Egyptian jails from countries around the world.60 Often, as in the case of the two from Sweden, the renditions were portrayed as bilateral matters. The involvement of the United States had been concealed. But time and again the CIA had been the hidden hand. Since 9/11, my own records showed that CIA jets most directly involved in renditions had visited Cairo twenty times.61 And on many occasions they arrived with prisoners onboard. Jack Cloonan, a twenty-five-year veteran of the FBI and former senior agent in the FBI's Al Qaeda task force, has some experience of the Egyptian inclination to torture. Once the FBI had a witness, apilot who had worked with Osama bin Laden and had agreed to testify against him. The FBI, in return, were offering him some protection. When this witness asked to go to Egypt to visit his family, the FBI pleaded with Cairo to leave him untouched. Yet even though he was a friend of the United States and a witness against terrorism, said Cloonan, the Egyptian secret police insisted on arresting and beating him. "I was told they chained him to a toilet bowl," he said.62
Before he left the FBI in late 2002, Cloonan was one of those who advocated presciently that treating Al Qaeda suspects humanely according to the law was essential to bringing them to trial and to extracting good intelligence. He was angered when a key Al Qaeda logistics man, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, was captured, questioned by FBI agents at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, but removed from their custody by the CIA. Al-Libi was rendered for interrogation in Egypt, where his forced confessions reportedly became the source of false intelligence about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. When he protested about al-Libi's rendition, the FBI director, Robert Mueller, brushed him off. "It was like: 'Why are you bothering me with this?'" From his experience, Cloonan said he knew terrorist suspects would remember experiences of mistreatment for generations. "What we don't seem to figure out is that when they are abused, they are duty bound to get revenge," he said.
Another prisoner sent to Egypt was an Australian called Mamdouh Habib. His case was an example that showed how rendition was used, not just to remove a terrorist out of harm's way, but to extract useful intelligence under torture. The information he provided in an Egyptian torture cell was later used against him at a tribunal in Guantánamo, Cuba. A former coffee shop manager from Sydney, Habib was on a bus in Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border, when he was arrested by local police. He had previously been living in Afghanistan, involved, it seems clear, with militant groups. He had fled to Pakistan when the U.S. invasion began. Although an Australian citizen, Mr. Habib was soon handed over to American agents. It is a familiar scene. Mr. Habib says he was taken to an airstrip, and there American men in masks, T-shirts, and boots stripped him, took pictures of him, shackled him, put a bag over his head, and put him on a plane.63 Then they flew him on to Cairo. It was there, explained his American lawyer, Professor Joe Margulies of the MacArthur Justice Center of the University of Chicago, that Habib was tortured continuously for six months.
"The torture was unspeakable," said Margulies. "Mr. Habib described routine beatings. He was taken into a room, handcuffed, and the room was gradually filled with water until the water was just beneath his chin. Can you imagine the terror of knowing you can't escape?"64
Under this interrogation, Habib confessed to involvement with Al Qaeda. "Whatever they wanted me to sign, I signed to survive,"65 Habib was then transferred back to American custody. He was first sent back to Afghanistan, where he got to meet Australian officials and, his government said later, "made some serious complaints about maltreatment during his time in Egypt."66 He was then sent on to Guantánamo, The confessions he signed in Egypt were now used against him in military tribunals. "Those combatant status review tribunals relied on the evidence secured in Egypt as a basis to detain Mr. Habib," said Margulies.
After Margulies and others lodged public protests over his torture, in January 2005 Habib was finally freed from Guantánamo and flown home to Australia. The government there said he would not be charged with any crime, although intelligence officials there would continue to accuse him of involvement with Al Qaeda. He still did not feel free. In an interview for Australian television he explained: "They doesn't [sic] want to leave me alone. So I feel free when these people leave me alone." He continued: "I've been released by United States and the United States say they dropped their case, they have nothing to do with me. I believe Australia shouldn't harass me anymore."67
Strikingly, Pakistan later confirmed that Habib had been sent to Egypt on U.S. orders and for U.S. purposes. "The U.S. wanted him for their own investigations. We are not concerned where they take him," said Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, the country's then interior minister. Egypt had not asked Pakistan for Habib's extradition, he said.68
Egypt then came in for much criticism. Its record both on human rights and on repressing democracy was lambasted annually by both Congress and by the State Department. But in secret, men like Omar Suleiman, the country's most powerful spy and secret policeman, did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do themselves. Were such tortures necessary? Was the threat really that great? Could the U.S. and European legal systems not be tightened so as to deal with these prisoners ourselves, thereby saving the CIA from involvement in this business? These were questions I asked over and over again. While I had not yet arrived at an answer, there was one conclusion I could not escape: Torture was being done in our name.
GHOST PLANE. Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Grey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.