TODAY’S Guardian newspaper shines a mainstream media spotlight on the true scale of the UK’s role in the rendition and torture of many innocent suspects following the 9/11 atrocities in 2001.
Two Government reports, published today, 28 June 2018, reveal British intelligence’s treatment of terrorism suspects.
The reports by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee amount to one of the most damning indictments ever of UK intelligence, revealing links to torture and rendition were much more widespread than previously reported.
While there was no evidence of officers directly carrying out physical mistreatment of detainees, the reports say the overseas agency MI6 and the domestic service MI5 were involved in hundreds of torture cases and scores of rendition cases.
The reports were published despite the US government demanding last-minute changes.
The reports say the British secret service agencies were aware “at an early point” of the mistreatment of detainees by the US and others.
There were two cases in which UK personnel were “party to mistreatment administered by others”.
One has been investigated by the Metropolitan police but the other is still to be fully investigated.
The report dealing with the treatment of detainees details a litany of cases of concern, saying: “We have found 13 incidents where UK personnel witnessed at first hand a detainee being mistreated by others, 25 where UK personnel were told by detainees that they had been mistreated by others and 128 incidents recorded where agency officers were told by foreign liaison services about instances of mistreatment. In some cases, these were correctly investigated but this was not consistent.”
It said that in 232 cases UK personnel continued to supply questions or intelligence to other services despite knowledge or suspicion of mistreatment, as well as “198 cases where UK personnel received intelligence from liaison services which had been obtained from detainees who knew they had been mistreated – or with no indication as to how the detainee had been treated but where we consider they should have suspected mistreatment.”
The committee found three individual cases where MI6 or MI5 made or offered to make a financial contribution to others to conduct a rendition operation.
In 28 cases, the agencies either suggested, planned or agreed to rendition operations proposed by others.
In a further 22 cases, MI6 or MI5 provided intelligence to enable a rendition operation to take place. In 23 cases they failed to take action to prevent rendition.
The report says those at headquarters were aware of reports of mistreatment by the US – including 38 cases in 2002 alone – but did not take them seriously.
“That the US, and others, were mistreating detainees is beyond doubt, as is the fact that the agencies and defence intelligence were aware of this at an early point,” the report says.
“The same is true of rendition: there was no attempt to identify the risks involved and formulate the UK’s response. There was no understanding in HMG of rendition and no clear policy – or even recognition of the need for one.”
The reports shine a bright light publicly on the horrendous actions of the British secret services and their US allies.
Many researchers and human rights campaigners have tried to expose these extraordinary rendition processes for many years.
After the attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conspired with dozens of governments to build a secret extraordinary rendition and detention programme that spanned the globe. Extraordinary rendition is the transfer—without legal process—of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation.
The programme, started under President George W Bush was intended to “protect America”.
But, instead it stripped people of their most basic rights, facilitated gruesome forms of torture, at times captured the wrong people, and debased the United States’ human rights reputation world-wide.
Until today, the United States and the vast majority of the other governments involved – more than 50 in all – have refused to acknowledge their participation, compensate the victims, or hold accountable those most responsible for the programme and its abuses.
Here are 20 additional facts that expose just how brutal and mistaken the programme was:
- At least 136 individuals were extraordinarily rendered or secretly detained by the CIA and at least 54 governments reportedly participated in the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition programme.
- A series of US Department of Justice memoranda authorized torture methods that the CIA applied on detainees. The Bush Administration referred to these methods as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Enhanced interrogation techniques included “walling” (quickly pulling the detainee forward and then thrusting him against a flexible false wall), “water dousing,” “waterboarding,” “stress positions” (forcing the detainee to remain in body positions designed to induce physical discomfort), “wall standing” (forcing the detainee to remain standing with his arms outstretched in front of him so that his fingers touch a wall five four to five feet away and support his entire body weight), “cramped confinement” in a box, “insult slaps”, “facial hold”, “attention grasp” (grasping the detainee with both hands, one hand on each side of the collar opening, and quickly drawing him toward the interrogator), forced nudity, sleep deprivation while being vertically shackled, and dietary manipulation.
- President Bush stated that about 100 detainees were held under the CIA secret detention programme, about a third of whom were questioned using “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
- The CIA’s Office of Inspector General has reportedly investigated a number of “erroneous renditions” in which the CIA had abducted and detained the wrong people. A CIA officer told the Washington Post: “They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association” with terrorism.
- German national Khaled El-Masri was seized in Macedonia because he had been mistaken for an Al Qaeda suspect with a similar name. He was held incommunicado and abused in Macedonia and in secret CIA detention in Afghanistan. On 13 December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights held that Macedonia had violated El-Masri’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, and found that his ill-treatment by the CIA at Skopje airport in Macedonia amounted to torture.
- Wesam Abdulrahman Ahmed al-Deemawi was seized in Iran and held for 77 days in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan. He was later held in Bagram for 40 days and subjected to sleep deprivation, hung from the ceiling by his arms in the “strappado” position, threatened by dogs, made to watch torture videos, and subjected to sounds of electric sawing accompanied by cries of pain.
- Several former interrogators and counterterrorism experts have confirmed that “coercive interrogation” is ineffective. Steven Kleinman, Jack Cloonan, and Matthew Alexander stated in a letter to Congress that that US interrogation policy “came with heavy costs” and that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups recruited a new generation of Jihadists.”
- After being extraordinarily rendered by the United States to Egypt in 2002, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under threat of torture at the hands of Egyptian officials, fabricated information relating to Iraq’s provision of chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda. In 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell relied on this fabricated information in his speech to the United Nations that made the case for war against Iraq.
- Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times by the CIA. FBI interrogator Ali Soufan testified before Congress that he elicited “actionable intelligence” from Zubaydah using rapport-building techniques but that Zubaydah “shut down” after he was waterboarded.
- Torture is prohibited in all circumstances under international law and allegations of torture must be investigated and criminally punished. The United States prosecuted Japanese interrogators for “waterboarding” US prisoners during World War II.
- On 20 November 2002, Gul Rahman froze to death in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan called the “Salt Pit,” after a CIA case officer ordered guards to strip him naked, chain him to the concrete floor, and leave him there overnight without blankets.
- Fatima Bouchar was abused by the CIA, and by persons believed to be Thai authorities, for several days in the Bangkok airport. Bouchar reported she was chained to a wall and not fed for five days, at a time when she was four-and-a-half months pregnant. After that she was extraordinarily rendered to Libya.
- Syria was one of the “most common destinations for rendered suspects,” as were Egypt and Jordan. One Syrian prison facility contained individual cells that were roughly the size of coffins. Detainees report incidents of torture involving a chair frame used to stretch the spine (the so-called “German chair”) and beatings.
- Muhammed al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza, while seeking asylum in Sweden, were extraordinarily rendered to Egypt where they were tortured with shocks to their genitals. Al-Zery was also forced to lie on an electrified bed frame.
- Abu Omar, an Italian resident, was abducted from the streets of Milan, extraordinarily rendered to Egypt, and secretly detained for fourteen months while Egyptian agents interrogated and tortured him by subjecting him to electric shocks. An Italian court convicted in absentia 22 CIA agents and one Air Force pilot for their roles in the extraordinary rendition of Abu Omar.
- Known black sites – secret prisons run by the CIA on foreign soil – existed in Afghanistan, Lithuania, Morocco, Poland, Romania, and Thailand.
- Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was secretly detained in various black sites. While secretly detained in Poland, US interrogators subjected al Nashiri to a mock execution with a power drill as he stood naked and hooded; racked a semi-automatic handgun close to his head as he sat shackled before them; held him in “standing stress positions” and threatened to bring in his mother and sexually abuse her in front of him.
- President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order repudiating torture does not repudiate the CIA extraordinary rendition programme. It was specifically crafted to preserve the CIA’s authority to detain terrorist suspects on a short-term, transitory basis prior to rendering them to another country for interrogation or trial.
- President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order also established an interagency task force to review interrogation and transfer policies and issue recommendations on “the practices of transferring individuals to other nations.” The interagency task force report was issued in 2009, but continues to be withheld from the public. It appears that the US intends to continue to rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries, those assurances were not effective safeguards against torture for Maher Arar, who was tortured in Syria, or Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who were tortured in Egypt.
- The Senate Select Intelligence Committee has completed a 6,000 page report that further details the CIA detention and interrogation operations with access to classified sources. In December, 2014, the committee released a heavily redacted 525-page portion of the report.
But this is only the tip of the torture and rendition story.
A full 13 years ago, in February 2005, Jane Mayer reported the Maher Arar case and full extent of the rendition processes in the New Yorker magazine.
Her report is essential reading:
On 27th January, President Bush, in an interview with The Times, assured the world that “torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.”
Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria, was surprised to learn of Bush’s statement.
Two and a half years ago, American officials, suspecting Arar of being a terrorist, apprehended him in New York and sent him back to Syria, where he endured months of brutal interrogation, including torture.
When Arar described his experience in a phone interview recently, he invoked an Arabic expression. The pain was so unbearable, he said, that “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.”
Arar, a 34-year-old graduate of McGill University whose family emigrated to Canada when he was a teenager, was arrested on 26 September 2002, at John F Kennedy Airport.
He was changing planes; he had been on vacation with his family in Tunisia, and was returning to Canada. Arar was detained because his name had been placed on the United States Watch List of terrorist suspects.
He was held for the next 13 days, as American officials questioned him about possible links to another suspected terrorist. Arar said that he barely knew the suspect, although he had worked with the man’s brother.
Arar, who was not formally charged, was placed in handcuffs and leg irons by plainclothes officials and transferred to an executive jet.
The plane flew to Washington, continued to Portland, Maine, stopped in Rome, Italy, then landed in Amman, Jordan.
During the flight, Arar said, he heard the pilots and crew identify themselves in radio communications as members of “the Special Removal Unit”.
The Americans, he learned, planned to take him next to Syria.
Having been told by his parents about the barbaric practices of the police in Syria, Arar begged crew members not to send him there, arguing that he would surely be tortured. His captors did not respond to his request; instead, they invited him to watch a spy thriller that was aired on board.
Ten hours after landing in Jordan, Arar said, he was driven to Syria, where interrogators, after a day of threats, “just began beating on me.” They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and kept him in a windowless underground cell that he likened to a grave. “Not even animals could withstand it,” he said.
Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed to anything his tormentors wanted him to say. “You just give up,” he said. “You become like an animal.”
A year later, in October, 2003, Arar was released without charges, after the Canadian government took up his cause.
Imad Moustapha, the Syrian Ambassador in Washington, announced that his country had found no links between Arar and terrorism.
Arar is suing the US government for his mistreatment.
“They are outsourcing torture because they know it’s illegal,” he said. “Why, if they have suspicions, don’t they question people within the boundary of the law?”
Rendition was originally carried out on a limited basis, but after 9/11 when President Bush declared a global war on terrorism, the programme expanded beyond recognition – becoming, according to a former CIA official, “an abomination.”
What began as a programme aimed at a small, discrete set of suspects – people against whom there were outstanding foreign arrest warrants – came to include a wide and ill-defined population that the Administration terms “illegal enemy combatants.”
Many of them have never been publicly charged with any crime.
Scott Horton, an expert on international law who helped prepare a report on renditions issued by NYU Law School and the New York City Bar Association, estimates that 150 people have been rendered since 2001.
Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, said that a more precise number was impossible to obtain.
“I’ve asked people at the CIA for numbers,” he said. “They refuse to answer. All they will say is that they’re in compliance with the law.”
Although the full scope of the extraordinary-rendition programme isn’t known, several recent cases have come to light that may well violate US law.
In 1998, Congress passed legislation declaring that it is: “the policy of the United States not to expel, extradite, or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the United States.”
The Bush Administration, however, argued that the threat posed by stateless terrorists who draw no distinction between military and civilian targets is so dire that it requires tough new rules of engagement.
This shift in perspective, labelled the New Paradigm in a memo written by Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel: “places a high premium on . . . the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians,” giving less weight to the rights of suspects. It also questions many international laws of war.
Five days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Vice-President Dick Cheney, reflecting the new outlook, argued, on “Meet the Press,” that the government needed to “work through, sort of, the dark side.”
Cheney went on: “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
The extraordinary-rendition programme bears little relation to the system of due process afforded suspects in crimes in America.
Terrorism suspects in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have often been abducted by hooded or masked American agents, then forced onto a Gulfstream V jet, like the one described by Arar.
This jet, which has been registered to a series of dummy American corporations, such as Bayard Foreign Marketing, of Portland, Oregon, has clearance to land at US military bases.
Upon arriving in foreign countries, rendered suspects often vanish. Detainees are not provided with lawyers, and many families are not informed of their whereabouts.
The most common destinations for rendered suspects are Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Jordan, all of which have been cited for human-rights violations by the State Department, and are known to torture suspects.
To justify sending detainees to these countries, the Administration appears to be relying on a very fine reading of an imprecise clause in the United Nations Convention Against Torture (which the U.S. ratified in 1994), requiring “substantial grounds for believing” that a detainee will be tortured abroad.
Martin Lederman, a lawyer who left the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002, after eight years, says: “The Convention only applies when you know a suspect is more likely than not to be tortured, but what if you kind of know? That’s not enough. So there are ways to get around it.”
Rendition is just one element of the Administration’s New Paradigm. The CIA itself is holding dozens of “high value” terrorist suspects outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., in addition to the estimated five hundred and fifty detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Administration confirmed the identities of at least 10 of these suspects to the 9/11 Commission – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top Al Qaeda operative, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an alleged chief planner of the 9/11 attacks – but refused to allow Commission members to interview the men, and would not say where they were being held.
Reports have suggested that CIA prisons are being operated in Thailand, Qatar, and Afghanistan, among other countries.
At the request of the CIA, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally ordered that a prisoner in Iraq be hidden from Red Cross officials for several months, and Army General Paul Kern told Congress that the CIA may have hidden up to a hundred detainees.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949, which established norms on the treatment of soldiers and civilians captured in war, require the prompt registration of detainees, so that their treatment can be monitored, but the Administration argues that Al Qaeda members and supporters, who are not part of a state-sponsored military, are not covered by the Conventions.
Gonzales, the new Attorney General, argued during his confirmation proceedings that the UN Convention Against Torture’s ban on “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” of terrorist suspects does not apply to American interrogations of foreigners overseas.
Perhaps surprisingly, the fiercest internal resistance to this thinking has come from people who have been directly involved in interrogation, including veteran FBI and CIA agents.
Their concerns are as much practical as ideological. Years of experience in interrogation have led them to doubt the effectiveness of physical coercion as a means of extracting reliable information.
They also warn that the Bush Administration, having taken so many prisoners outside the realm of the law, may not be able to bring them back in.
By holding detainees indefinitely, without counsel, without charges of wrongdoing, and under circumstances that could, in legal parlance, “shock the conscience” of a court, the Administration has jeopardized its chances of convicting hundreds of suspected terrorists, or even of using them as witnesses in almost any court in the world.
“It’s a big problem,” Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general and a member of the 9/11 Commission, says.
“In criminal justice, you either prosecute the suspects or let them go. But if you’ve treated them in ways that won’t allow you to prosecute them you’re in this no man’s land. What do you do with these people?”
Among critics is Michael Scheuer, a former CIA counter-terrorism expert who helped establish the practice of rendition.
Scheuer left the agency in 2004, and has written two acerbic critiques of the government’s fight against Islamic terrorism under the pseudonym Anonymous, the most recent of which, “Imperial Hubris,” was a best-seller.
Not long ago, Scheuer, who lives in northern Virginia, spoke openly for the first time about how he and several other top CIA officials set up the programme, in the mid-nineties. “It was begun in desperation,” he told me.
At the time, he was the head of the CIA’s Islamic-militant unit, whose job was to “detect, disrupt, and dismantle” terrorist operations.
His unit spent much of 1996 studying how Al Qaeda operated; by the next year, Scheuer said, its mission was to try to capture bin Laden and his associates. He recalled: “We went to the White House” – which was then occupied by the Clinton Administration – “and they said: ‘Do it.’ ”
He added that Richard Clarke, who was in charge of counter-terrorism for the National Security Council, offered no advice. “He told me, ‘Figure it out by yourselves,’” Scheuer said.
Scheuer sought the counsel of Mary Jo White, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who, along with a small group of FBI agents, was pursuing the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing case.
In 1998, White’s team obtained an indictment against bin Laden, authorizing U.S. agents to bring him and his associates to the United States to stand trial. From the start, though, the CIA was wary of granting terrorism suspects the due process afforded by American law.
The agency did not want to divulge secrets about its intelligence sources and methods, and American courts demand transparency.
Even establishing the chain of custody of key evidence could easily pose a significant problem: foreign governments might refuse to testify in US courts about how they had obtained the evidence, for fear of having their secret cooperation exposed.
The CIA also felt that other agencies sometimes stood in its way.
In 1996, for example, the State Department stymied a joint effort by the CIA and the FBI to question one of bin Laden’s cousins in America, because he had a diplomatic passport, which protects the holder from US law enforcement.
Describing the CIA’s frustration, Scheuer said: “We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them.”
The agency realized that “we had to come up with a third party.”
The obvious choice, Scheuer said, was Egypt. The largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, Egypt was a key strategic ally, and its secret police force, the Mukhabarat, had a reputation for brutality.
Egypt had been frequently cited by the State Department for torture of prisoners.
According to a 2002 report, detainees were “stripped and blindfolded; suspended from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beaten with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; subjected to electrical shocks; and doused with cold water [and] sexually assaulted.”
Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader, who came to office in 1981, after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists, was determined to crack down on terrorism.
His prime political enemies were radical Islamists, hundreds of whom had fled the country and joined Al Qaeda. Among these was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician from Cairo, who went to Afghanistan and eventually became bin Laden’s deputy.
In 1995, Scheuer said, American agents proposed the rendition programme to Egypt, making clear that it had the resources to track, capture, and transport terrorist suspects globally – including access to a small fleet of aircraft.
Egypt embraced the idea.
“What was clever was that some of the senior people in Al Qaeda were Egyptian,” Scheuer said. “It served American purposes to get these people arrested, and Egyptian purposes to get these people back, where they could be interrogated.”
Technically, US law requires the CIA to seek “assurances” from foreign governments that rendered suspects won’t be tortured.
A series of spectacular covert operations followed from this secret pact. On September 13, 1995, US agents helped kidnap Talaat Fouad Qassem, one of Egypt’s most wanted terrorists, in Croatia.
Qassem had fled to Europe after being linked by Egypt to the assassination of Sadat; he had been sentenced to death in absentia.
Croatian police seized Qassem in Zagreb and handed him over to US agents, who interrogated him aboard a ship cruising the Adriatic Sea and then took him back to Egypt. Once there, Qassem disappeared.
There is no record that he was put on trial.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist who covers human-rights issues, said: “We believe he was executed.”
A more elaborate operation was staged in Tirana, Albania, in the summer of 1998. According to the Wall Street Journal, the CIA provided the Albanian intelligence service with equipment to wiretap the phones of suspected Muslim militants.
Tapes of the conversations were translated into English, and U.S. agents discovered that they contained lengthy discussions with Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy.
The US pressured Egypt for assistance; in June, Egypt issued an arrest warrant for Shawki Salama Attiya, one of the militants.
Over the next few months, according to the Journal, Albanian security forces, working with U.S. agents, killed one suspect and captured Attiya and four others.
These men were bound, blindfolded, and taken to an abandoned airbase, then flown by jet to Cairo for interrogation.
Attiya later alleged that he suffered electrical shocks to his genitals, was hung from his limbs, and was kept in a cell in filthy water up to his knees. Two other suspects, who had been sentenced to death in absentia, were hanged.
On 5 August1998, an Arab-language newspaper in London published a letter from the International Islamic Front for Jihad, in which it threatened retaliation against the US for the Albanian operation – in a “language they will understand.”
Two days later, the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, killing 224 people.
The US began rendering terror suspects to other countries, but the most common destination remained Egypt.
The partnership between the American and the Egyptian intelligence services was extraordinarily close: the Americans could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted put to the detainees in the morning, Scheuer said, and get answers by the evening.
The Americans asked to question suspects directly themselves, but, Scheuer said, the Egyptians refused. “We were never in the same room at the same time.”
Scheuer claimed that “there was a legal process” undergirding these early renditions.
Every suspect who was apprehended, he said, had been convicted in absentia. Before a suspect was captured, a dossier was prepared containing the equivalent of a rap sheet. The CIA’s legal counsel signed off on every proposed operation.
Scheuer said that this system prevented innocent people from being subjected to rendition. “Langley would never let us proceed unless there was substance,” he said. Moreover, Scheuer emphasized, renditions were pursued out of expedience – “not out of thinking it was the best policy.”
Since 9/11, as the number of renditions has grown, and hundreds of terrorist suspects have been deposited indefinitely in places like Guantánamo Bay, the shortcomings of this approach have become manifest. “Are we going to hold these people forever?” Scheuer asked.
“The policymakers hadn’t thought what to do with them, and what would happen when it was found out that we were turning them over to governments that the human-rights world reviled.” Once a detainee’s rights have been violated, he says, “you absolutely can’t” reinstate him into the court system. “You can’t kill him, either,” he added. “All we’ve done is create a nightmare.”
Dan Coleman, an ex-FBI agent claimed the CIA liked rendition from the start.
“They loved that these guys would just disappear off the books, and never be heard of again,” he said. “They were proud of it.”
For 10 years, Coleman worked closely with the CIA on counter-terrorism cases, including the Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. His methodical style of detective work, in which interrogations were aimed at forging relationships with detainees, became unfashionable after 9/11, in part because the government was intent on extracting information as quickly as possible, to prevent future attacks.
Yet the more patient approach used by Coleman and other agents had yielded major successes. In the Embassy-bombings case, they helped convict four Al Qaeda operatives on three hundred and two criminal counts; all four men pleaded guilty to serious terrorism charges.
The confessions the FBI agents elicited, and the trial itself, which ended in May, 2001, created an invaluable public record about Al Qaeda, including details about its funding mechanisms, its internal structure, and its intention to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Bad as the policy of rendition was before September 11th, Coleman said: “afterwards it really went out of control.” He explained, “Now, instead of just sending people to third countries, we’re holding them ourselves. We’re taking people, and keeping them in our own custody in third countries. That’s an enormous problem.”
Egypt, he pointed out, at least had an established legal system, however harsh. “There was a process there,” Coleman said. “But what’s our process? We have no method over there other than our laws – and we’ve decided to ignore them. What are we now, the Huns? If you don’t talk to us, we’ll kill you?”
From the beginning of the rendition programme, Coleman said, there was no doubt that Egypt engaged in torture. He recalled the case of a suspect in the first World Trade Centre bombing who fled to Egypt. The US requested his return, and the Egyptians handed him over—wrapped head to toe in duct tape, like a mummy.
Under such circumstances, it might seem difficult for the US government to legally justify dispatching suspects to Egypt. But Coleman said that since 9/11 the CIA “has seemed to think it’s operating under different rules, that it has extra-legal abilities outside the US”
Agents, he said, have “told me that they have their own enormous office of general counsel that rarely tells them no. Whatever they do is all right. It all takes place overseas.”
Coleman was angry that lawyers in Washington were redefining the parameters of counter-terrorism interrogations. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to someone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” he asked. “He’s going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.”
Due process made detainees more compliant, not less, Coleman said. He had also found that a defendant’s right to legal counsel was beneficial not only to suspects but also to law-enforcement officers.
Defense lawyers frequently persuaded detainees to cooperate with prosecutors, in exchange for plea agreements. “The lawyers show these guys there’s a way out,” Coleman said. “It’s human nature.
People don’t cooperate with you unless they have some reason to.” He added: “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”
Soon after 9/11, US Administration lawyers began advising President Bush that he did not have to comply with the Geneva Conventions in handling detainees in the war on terror.
The lawyers classified these detainees not as civilians or prisoners of war – two categories of individuals protected by the Conventions – but as “illegal enemy combatants.”
The rubric included not only Al Qaeda members and supporters but the entire Taliban, because, the lawyers argued, the country was a “failed state.”
Eric Lewis, an expert in international law who represents several Guantánamo detainees, said: “The Administration’s lawyers created a third category and cast them outside the law.”
The State Department, determined to uphold the Geneva Conventions, fought against Bush’s lawyers and lost.
In a 40 memo, dated January 11, 2002 (which has not been publicly released), William Taft IV, the State Department legal adviser, argued that the Administration’s legal analysis was “seriously flawed.”
Taft wrote that their contention that the President could disregard the Geneva Conventions was “untenable,” “incorrect,” and “confused.”
Others in the Administration worried that the President’s lawyers were wayward.
“Lawyers have to be the voice of reason and sometimes have to put the brakes on, no matter how much the client wants to hear something else,” the former State Department lawyer said.
“Our job is to keep the train on the tracks. It’s not to tell the President, ‘Here are the ways to avoid the law.’ ”
He went on: “There is no such thing as a non-covered person under the Geneva Conventions. It’s nonsense. The protocols cover fighters in everything from world wars to local rebellions.”
According to top State Department officials, Bush decided to suspend the Geneva Conventions on January 8, 2002 – three days before Taft sent his memo.
The legal pronouncements from Washington about the status of detainees were painstakingly constructed to include numerous loopholes.
For example, in February, 2002, President Bush issued a written directive stating that, even though he had determined that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war on terror, all detainees should be treated “humanely”.
A close reading of the directive, however, revealed that it referred only to military interrogators – not to CIA officials.
This exemption allowed the CIA to continue using interrogation methods, including rendition that stopped just short of torture.
According to The Times, a secret memo issued by Administration lawyers authorized the CIA to use novel interrogation methods – including “water-boarding,” in which a suspect is bound and immersed in water until he nearly drowns.
Dr Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/NYU Programme for Survivors of Torture, told me that he had treated a number of people who had been subjected to such forms of near-asphyxiation, and he argued that it was indeed torture. Some victims were still traumatized years later, he said.
One patient couldn’t take showers, and panicked when it rained. “The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience,” he said.
The Administration’s justification of the rough treatment of detainees appears to have passed down the chain of command.
In late 2003, at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq, photographs were taken that documented prisoners being subjected to grotesque abuse by US soldiers.
After the scandal became public, the Justice Department revised the narrow definition of torture, using language that more strongly prohibited physical abuse during interrogations.
Most authorities on interrogation, in and out of government, agree that torture and lesser forms of physical coercion succeed in producing confessions. The problem is that these confessions aren’t necessarily true.
Three of the Guantánamo detainees released by the US to Great Britain last year, for example, had confessed that they had appeared in a blurry video, obtained by American investigators that documented a group of acolytes meeting with bin Laden in Afghanistan.
As reported in The Observer, British intelligence officials arrived at Guantánamo with evidence that the accused men had been living in England at the time the video was made. The detainees told British authorities that they had been coerced into making false confessions.
Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, told me that “the US accepts quite a lot of intelligence from the Uzbeks” that has been extracted from suspects who have been tortured. This information was, he said, “largely rubbish.”
He said he knew of “at least three” instances where the US had rendered suspected militants from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan.
Although Murray does not know the fate of the three men, he said: “They almost certainly would have been tortured.”
In Uzbekistan, he said: “partial boiling of a hand or an arm is quite common.” He also knew of two cases in which prisoners had been boiled to death.
In 2002, Murray, concerned that America was complicit with such a regime, asked his deputy to discuss the problem with the CIA’s station chief in Tashkent.
He said that the station chief did not dispute that intelligence was being obtained under torture. But the CIA did not consider this a problem.
“There was no reason to think they were perturbed,” Murray told me.
Scientific research on the efficacy of torture and rough interrogation is limited, because of the moral and legal impediments to experimentation.
Tom Parker, a former officer for MI5 argued that, whether or not forceful interrogations yield accurate information from terrorist suspects, a larger problem is that many detainees “have nothing to tell.”
For many years, he said, British authorities subjected members of the Irish Republican Army to forceful interrogations, but, in the end, the government concluded that “detainees aren’t valuable.”
A more effective strategy, Parker said, was “being creative” about human intelligence gathering, such as infiltration and eavesdropping. “The U.S. is doing what the British did in the 1970s, detaining people and violating their civil liberties,” he said. “It did nothing but exacerbate the situation. Most of those interned went back to terrorism. You’ll end up radicalizing the entire population.”
Although the Administration has tried to keep the details of extraordinary renditions secret, several accounts have surfaced that reveal how the programme operates.
On 18 December 2001, at Stockholm’s Bromma Airport, a half-dozen hooded security officials ushered two Egyptian asylum seekers, Muhammad Zery and Ahmed Agiza, into an empty office.
They cut off the Egyptians’ clothes with scissors, forcibly administered sedatives by suppository, swaddled them in diapers, and dressed them in orange jumpsuits.
As was reported by Kalla Fakta, a Swedish television news programme, the suspects were blindfolded, placed in handcuffs and leg irons; according to a declassified Swedish government report, the men were then flown to Cairo on a US registered Gulfstream V jet.
Swedish officials have claimed that they received assurances from the Egyptians that Zery and Agiza would be treated humanely. But both suspects have said, through lawyers and family members, that they were tortured with electrical charges to their genitals.
After spending two years in an Egyptian prison, Zery was released. Agiza, a physician who had once been an ally of Zawahiri but later renounced him and terrorism, was convicted on terrorism charges by Egypt’s Supreme Military Court. He was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
Another case suggests that the Bush Administration is authorizing the rendition of suspects for whom it has little evidence of guilt.
Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born citizen of Australia, was apprehended in Pakistan in October, 2001.
According to his wife, Habib, a radical Muslim with four children, was visiting the country to tour religious schools and determine if his family should move to Pakistan.
A spokesman at the Pentagon has claimed that Habib – who has expressed support for Islamist causes – spent most of his trip in Afghanistan, and was “either supporting hostile forces or on the battlefield fighting illegally against the US”. Last month, after a three-year ordeal, Habib was released without charges.
Habib is one of a handful of people subjected to rendition who are being represented pro bono by human-rights lawyers.
According to a recently unsealed document prepared by Joseph Margulies, a lawyer affiliated with the MacArthur Justice Centre at the University of Chicago Law School, Habib said that he was first interrogated in Pakistan for three weeks, in part at a facility in Islamabad, where he said he was brutalized.
Some of his interrogators, he claimed, spoke English with American accents. He was then placed in the custody of Americans, two of whom wore black short-sleeved shirts and had distinctive tattoos: one depicted an American flag attached to a flagpole shaped like a finger, the other a large cross.
The Americans took him to an airfield, cut his clothes off with scissors, dressed him in a jumpsuit, covered his eyes with opaque goggles, and placed him aboard a private plane.
He was flown to Egypt.
According to Margulies, Habib was held and interrogated for six months. “Never, to my knowledge, did he make an appearance in any court,” Margulies told me.
Margulies was also unaware of any evidence suggesting that the U.S. sought a promise from Egypt that Habib would not be tortured. For his part, Habib claimed to have been subjected to horrific conditions.
He said that he was beaten frequently with blunt instruments, including an object that he likened to an electric “cattle prod.”
And he was told that if he didn’t confess to belonging to Al Qaeda he would be anally raped by specially trained dogs.
Hossam el-Hamalawy said that Egyptian security forces train German Shepherds for police work, and that other prisoners have also been threatened with rape by trained dogs, although he knows of no one who has been assaulted in this way.
Habib said that he was shackled and forced to stand in three torture chambers: one room was filled with water up to his chin, requiring him to stand on tiptoe for hours; another chamber, filled with water up to his knees, had a ceiling so low that he was forced into a prolonged, painful stoop; in the third, he stood in water up to his ankles, and within sight of an electric switch and a generator, which his jailers said would be used to electrocute him if he didn’t confess.
Habib’s lawyer said that he submitted to his interrogators’ demands and made multiple confessions, all of them false.
After his imprisonment in Egypt, Habib said that he was returned to US custody and was flown to Bagram Air Force Base, in Afghanistan, and then on to Guantánamo Bay, where he was detained until last month.
On 11th January, a few days after the Washington Post published an article on Habib’s case, the Pentagon, offering virtually no explanation, agreed to release him into the custody of the Australian government.
“Habib was released because he was hopelessly embarrassing,” Eric Freedman, a professor at Hofstra Law School, who has been involved in the detainees’ legal defense, says. “It’s a large crack in the wall in a house of cards that is midway through tumbling down.”
In a prepared statement, a Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Flex Plexico, said there was “no evidence” that Habib “was tortured or abused” while he was in U.S. custody. He also said that Habib had received “Al Qaeda training,” which included instruction in making false abuse allegations.
Habib’s claims, he suggested, “fit the standard operating procedure.”
The US government has not responded directly to Habib’s charge that he was rendered to Egypt.
However, several other men who were recently released from Guantánamo reported that Habib told them about it.
Jamal al-Harith, a British detainee who was sent home to Manchester, England, last March, told me in a phone interview that at one point he had been placed in a cage across from Habib.
“He said that he had been in Egypt for about six months, and they had injected him with drugs, and hung him from the ceiling, and beaten him very, very badly,” Harith recalled.
“He seemed to be in pain. He was haggard-looking. I never saw him walk. He always had to be held up.”
Another piece of evidence that may support Habib’s story is a set of flight logs documenting the travels of a white Gulfstream V jet – the plane that seems to have been used for renditions by the US government.
These logs show that on 9 April 2002, the jet left Dulles Airport, in Washington, and landed in Cairo. According to Habib’s attorney, this was around the same time that Habib said he was released by the Egyptians in Cairo, and returned to US custody.
The flight logs were obtained by Stephen Grey, a British journalist who has written a number of stories on renditions for British publications, including the London Sunday Times.
Grey’s logs are incomplete, but they chronicle some three hundred flights over three years by the 14-seat jet, which was marked on its tail with the code N379P.
All the flights originated from Dulles Airport, and many of them landed at restricted US military bases.
Even if Habib is a terrorist aligned with Al Qaeda, as Pentagon officials have claimed, it seems unlikely that prosecutors would ever be able to build a strong case against him, given the treatment that he received in Egypt.
John Radsan, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, in St Paul, Minnesota, who worked in the general counsel’s office of the CIA until last year, said, “I don’t think anyone’s thought through what we do with these people.”
Similar problems complicate the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in March, 2003. Mohammed has reportedly been “water-boarded” during interrogations.
If so, Radsan said, “it would be almost impossible to take him into a criminal trial. Any evidence derived from his interrogation could be seen as fruit from the poisonous tree.
“I think the government is considering some sort of military tribunal somewhere down the line. But, even there, there are still constitutional requirements that you can’t bring in involuntary confessions.
“It’s the law of the jungle. And right now we happen to be the strongest animal.”