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'CIA Torture Program Ensnares Innocents'
Interview with Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane
Christopher Brown (christo)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-28 12:04 (KST)   
The names Khaled El Masri, Moazzam Begg, Binyam Mohammad, and Maher Arar may not sound familiar to most people. But they are among the hundreds of people, many of whom have no proven ties to terrorist organizations, who since 1997 have been removed from airports on suspicions based at times on the flimsiest of evidence. They have been escorted away at boarding gates, grabbed while they changed planes, and approached on street corners. Those accused disappeared into a secret world of endless interrogations and torture; all transported care of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In his new book Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, award-winning investigative journalist Stephen Grey tells the true story of what became of the CIA's torture program known by the euphemism "extraordinary rendition" and the airplanes that make the program run. Citizen reporter Chris Brown spoke with him by telephone while he was in New York on a book tour.
  <Editor's Note>
Your first encounter with the rendition program began back in December 2001 while you were interviewing a certain congressperson, who later became one of President Bush's key men in the war on terror. Could you briefly talk about this?

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I was working for The Sunday Times of London and I was in Washington just after Sept. 11. I sat down on a sofa in an office on Capital Hill in the office of Porter Goss, who was then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and later became head of the CIA. It was he for the first time who actually told me the term "rendition." I was asking about what the CIA had been doing to capture Osama Bin Laden, and I said, "Could he have been kidnapped?" And he said, "It's called rendition. Have you heard of that?" And I said, "No I haven't." And he said it's a way of bringing people to a kind of justice.

So I was very intrigued to hear about this kind of concept. And that really was the start of what had become many years of inquiries to try to get to the bottom of it.

Many in the U.S. might think that this so-called rendition policy is a new weapon to pursue terrorists. But, in fact, it's been around for a number of years. Can you speak about this?

Rendition itself -- which basically means sending people across to another country without any trial, legal process, or treaty -- that's been going on since the 1880s. It started off with the case of someone being picked up in Peru by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, quite an early example of a contractor operating under presidential authority. But the point was that this kind of rendition involved bringing people back to trial in the United States, in other words before an open trial, before a judge and jury. And as such, although laws are broken abroad, it was ruled to be legal in the U.S. And that's been going on for a very long time.

I don't suppose many people would have much to protest about that. But what I'm writing about in the book is the program of extraordinary rendition. That began as a systematic program used against suspected Islamic terrorists in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, specifically in 1995. And its been going on ever since. Although, I have to say that while this program started under Clinton, it expanded dramatically after Sept. 11.

In the book you write about Canadian citizen Maher Arar. The U.S. sent him to Syria. Before he was sent there he was interrogated for quite some time by the U.S. When Arar found out that he would be sent to Syria, where he is originally from, he pleaded with the U.S. agents not to send him there because he was certain that he would be tortured. The Bush administration has repeated that it doesn't torture. But, in fact, it is at the very least outsourcing torture when it sends people off to places like Syria, Egypt, or Uzbekistan. More to the point, the U.S. have been involved directly with interrogations that have involved torture, most notably Abu Ghraib. I was wondering if you might comment more on this?

©2007 St. Martin
Sure, the basic problem for the U.S. is that the laws prohibit torture and no one can be directly involved in it. So the mechanism of sending people to another country does certainly allow interrogations to take place, which wouldn't be allowed if carried out by U.S. agents themselves. And, you know, initially when President Bush first commented about rendition he said, "We don't send people to countries that torture." And they had to revise that because I think the lawyers pointed out that, in fact, America does.

And there are lots of countries that send their people to other countries to be tortured. Funnily enough the best evidence, if you want to read about torture in Syria, is to look at publications by the U.S. government that show, in very great detail, the kind of torture reserved for people who upset the state in Syria, and in particular people who are accused of being Islamic militants face the worst kind of torture.

It's not just a matter of getting people off the street, keeping them out of harm's way. I mean, Maher Arar could have been flown back to Canada; in fact he was on his way home to Canada. There was a deliberate choice to send him to a country where, it was believed, he would be properly interrogated. And when he arrived he wasn't wanted by Syria; Syria had no interest in him. He was sent with a list of questions attached. He was asked about the threat that he posed to the U.S. and to Canada. He wasn't asked about Syria. So this is a very clear example of outsourcing, of getting other people to do your dirty work for you.

I read something in the book that I found disturbing. The pilots who flew the planes were issued fake IDs and licenses by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Can you speak more on this?

It's quite striking that these people are able to fly around the world with control and knowledge of many government agencies that they're using false documents and false names. And it's involved the FAA, it's involved state offices who issue fake driver's licenses, it involves private contractors down in San Jose. You have a major subsidiary of Boeing called Jefferson Data Plan, which is a private company that is involved in organizing private flights all around the world. And they work directly with the CIA in organizing these trips, which involve rendition. There was a quite interesting interview in the New Yorker where someone who actually worked for that company said that they were quite aware that these planes were being used for the outsourcing of torture. So there were a lot of people who had knowledge of this and I suppose everybody thinks it's someone else's job to work out whether this is right or wrong.

Maher Arar was not known to have any significant links to terrorists. The CIA admit that on occasion they target the wrong person. Can you talk about this more?

Well I do believe that when they pick these people up they don't deliberately target someone who's innocent. They really do suspect that they are capturing someone and try to get him out of the way.

But there seems to be a kind of recklessness about finding out the truth here, and Khaled El-Masri, who is a German citizen for example, he was picked up by people in the CIA who thought he was somebody else. But as Khaled himself said, to verify a passport just takes a few weeks. He was held for five months in solitary confinement. And he wasn't even questioned for months at a time. Essentially he was forgotten in this jail and he wasn't really that important to try to sort out the truth.

Likewise, Maher Arar was questioned on the flimsiest of evidence. He knew somebody, went for a walk with somebody who himself was under investigation. It's amazing through these intelligence reports how you can link someone to terrorism on these small pieces of evidence. But he was completely cleared. Maher Arar was judged by an official Canadian inquiry to be a man with no connections whatsoever with terrorists. And it just highlights secret detentions, secret intelligence and no opportunity to test this intelligence in a courtroom, have a lawyer try to challenge what you're accused of, is a system that is bound to end up locking up and mistreating people who are innocent. Because there is no safety valve to really check whether we're doing to this to other people who really have got something that they're guilty of.

And Maher Arar was compensated for his treatment by the Canadian government and issued a public apology, correct?

That's right he's been compensated, the head of the Royal Mounted Police has resigned, the government has apologized. Although there was poor evidence linking him to Al Qaeda, which turned out to be wrong, they have apologized for that. What should be said is that Canada played no role in the decision to send him to Syria. So whatever wrong intelligence they had and supplied to U.S., ultimately it was the U.S. that decided to send him to be tortured.

And what's really striking is that, although the administration continues to state publicly that it's against torture and that there are all kinds of laws that prohibit torture and ensure that people that take part in torture are prosecuted, there appears to be no way from him to complain in the U.S. He tried to file a lawsuit, and it's been judged that it can't go ahead because if it did it might reveal state secrets. So, there's been no avenue given to these people to actually get their day in court and find justice at last.
Christopher Brown is an independent journalist living in San Francisco, Ca. He produces and hosts a podcast entitled, Crossing The Line: Life in Occupied Palestine (http://ctl.libsyn.com). Stephen Grey's website is www.stephengrey.com.

This article has appeared in no other publications. The audio version is available at http://ctl.libsyn.com.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Christopher Brown

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