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Post-9/11 renditions: An extraordinary violation of international law

Some say lack of due process in kidnappings and detention at secret prisons amounts to war crimes

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PORTSMOUTH, England — A plane lands in darkness and is directed to a far corner of an airfield, well out of public view. A group of men described as "masked ninjas" — wearing black overalls and hoods with slits for their eyes, nose and mouth — descend the aircraft steps and make their way to a nearby airport building. Inside a small room the detainee is waiting under armed guard, perhaps already blindfolded. He is immediately hooded as a process known as a "twenty-minute takeout" begins. Soon he is aboard the plane, on his way to another country to be harshly interrogated and possibly tortured.

That is what happened to two Egyptian asylum seekers in Sweden on December 18, 2001, and to numerous other terrorist suspects since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Events like this rarely happened before 9/11, but many sources claim that the CIA began frequent use of the practice almost immediately afterward. Now its pattern is familiar and so is its odd name: "extraordinary rendition."

The United States has never acknowledged such renditions, but the CIA's activities have been extensively studied and documented by European and other governments, as well as organizations that monitor human rights violations. One such inquiry, by Sweden's parliamentary ombudsman, was set in motion when the Egyptian asylum seekers were swept away — and Sweden landed in hot water with the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Extraordinary rendition may be a new term, but it is not a new practice — the English did it in the 17th century, shipping prisoners to Scotland to be tortured. Secret prisons are not a recent invention either. Britain ran such a camp holding Nazi prisoners at Bad Nenndorf, Germany, after World War II. Evidence of ill treatment there was kept secret for 60 years. America also had a secret postwar camp known only as "P.O. Box 1142" at Fort Hunt next to the Potomac River in Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. There, former U.S. interrogators have now disclosed, more than 3,400 Nazi prisoners were kept "off the books" in violation of the Geneva Conventions while they were interrogated about vital technical intelligence that could be useful to America.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the United States captured terrorist suspects overseas and "rendered" them back to the U.S. or to a third country to face trial. The CIA's extraordinary renditions reported to have occurred after 9/11 are quite different. What makes them extraordinary is that there is no judicial proceeding or due process of law; after the kidnapping, terrorist suspects simply disappear into a system of secret prisons for long-term detention and interrogation, sometimes accompanied by torture.

Human rights advocates and some legal scholars argue that extraordinary renditions are violations of international law, with some characterizing them as war crimes. For example, Professor Jordan J. Paust of the University of Houston, a former U.S. Army lawyer who is an expert on international law, has presented a formal analysis asserting that U.S. government leaders and those who planned or took part in extraordinary renditions could be prosecuted for committing war crimes.

The program began after the 9/11 attacks; within a week, President Bush signed a classified presidential "finding" authorizing an unprecedented range of covert operations, including capturing terrorists in foreign nations and what the Washington Post characterized as "the expenditure of vast funds to coax foreign intelligence services into a new era of cooperation with the CIA." A portent of what was about to be unleashed came when Vice President Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press," "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion."

Foreign intelligence services — including those inside the European Union — worked closely with their CIA counterparts in hunting those suspected of planning the 9/11 attacks or being al Qaeda members. According to journalist Stephen Grey's respected chronology of known renditions before and after 9/11, terrorist suspects were being picked up under the new programs within weeks of the planes crashing in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Reports indicate that these men were tracked down, handed over to CIA special operations teams and then flown to secret detention centers where harsh techniques were used in their interrogation.

This article examines three thoroughly documented extraordinary renditions.

Sweden criticized by U.N. panel

Soon after 9/11, Swedish security police lodged objections to applications for asylum from two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed El Zari. Even before the Swedish government officially decided to return them to Egypt, a report by the Swedish ombudsman relates that the CIA offered use of an aircraft so the men could be expelled the moment a formal order was issued.

According to this report — which was based in large part on interviews with and documentation provided by Swedish security officials — at midday on December 18, 2001, CIA officials told their Swedish counterparts there would be no room on the plane for the Swedish security police. When the Swedes objected, the CIA relented but insisted that a security check would have to be conducted on the two detainees at Bromma Airport near Stockholm. That being Swedish territory, the Swedes believed they were in charge of the deportation of two men from their country. It did not turn out that way.

A few hours after the expulsion order was official, the men were arrested. They arrived at Bromma about 8:30 p.m. Swedish counterterrorism officers and CIA officials were present, along with the security police.

"Just before 9 p.m. the American plane touched down," according to the ombudsman's report, "Officer Y went to speak to the occupants of the plane. These included, in addition to its crew, a security team of seven or eight, among them a doctor and two Egyptian officials. Officer Y informed the American officials that A. [Agiza] and E.Z. [El Zari] were waiting in the vehicles parked in front of the police station [at Bromma Airport] and the Americans were taken to them.

"The security team, all of whom were disguised by hoods around their heads, then went up to the vehicles in which A. and E.Z. were sitting. One of the men was taken first to the police station by the team. Inside the station, in a small changing room, the American officials conducted what they had referred to as a security check.

"According to reports, a doctor was present in the changing room. When the check had been completed, the second man was sent for and the same procedure repeated.

"The inquiry has revealed that this security check comprised at least the following. A. and E.Z. were subjected to 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. A. and E.Z. were then taken out of the police station in bare feet and led to the aircraft.

"In addition, K.J. lawyer has reported that E.Z. said that the security team had forced him to lean forwards in the changing room and he had then felt some object being inserted into his anal cavity. Afterwards he was equipped with a diaper. According to K.J., E.Z. then felt calmer, as if 'all the muscles in his body were slack.' E.Z. was, however, fully conscious for the entire journey. K.J. has added that E.Z. was blindfolded and placed in a hood and also forced to lie in an uncomfortable position on board the aircraft. …

"According to … witnesses, the security team conducted the security inspection rapidly, efficiently and professionally. The members of the team did not speak to each other but communicated using hand signals. …"

A Council of Europe inquiry obtained data from Eurocontrol, the European air traffic control agency, showing that the aircraft involved was a Gulfstream 5 executive jet with the call sign N379P, owned by Premier Executive Transport Services. The plane had set out on a prearranged two-day trip from the United States to board the two detainees in Sweden, take them to Egypt and then return to the U.S. after a brief refueling stop in Scotland.

This Eurocontrol data indicated that the executive jet that day covered many thousands of miles. It took off from Dulles International Airport during the early hours of December 18, flew direct to Cairo and collected two Egyptian officials; after refueling, it immediately headed for Sweden. The plane was on the ground at Bromma for just 65 minutes before heading back to Egypt.

According to the Swedish ombudsman's report: "Just two representatives of the Security Police were on board the plane: officer Y and the civilian interpreter. The original intention had been for three people to accompany the plane to Egypt but late in the day they were informed by the captain of the plane that there was only room for two from the Swedish Security Police. A. and E.Z. were placed at the rear of the plane, each lying on a mattress to which they were strapped. Their handcuffs, ankle fetters and hoods were not removed during the flight to Egypt.

"The transport log drawn up by officer Y contains the following entry: 'They 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. … [T]he body-search at the airport and the use of handcuffs and fetters was at the express order of the captain of the aircraft. In addition, it was noted that the explanation for requiring A. and E.Z. to wear hoods was that this was a policy that had been laid down on the basis of the events of September 11, 2001, about the transport of deportees with terrorist links.

"At about 3 a.m. the plane landed at Cairo. A. and E.Z. disembarked and were received by Egyptian officials. They were then driven off in a transit bus."

Despite Egypt's diplomatic assurance to Sweden that the two men would be treated humanely, Human Rights Watch says, based on testimony subsequently given by one of the two men, that they were subsequently tortured. U.N. Committees later decided Sweden had violated the Geneva Conventions by sending the men to Egypt.

"Egypt's promise not to torture was a mere fig leaf for the Swedish authorities," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, an independent non-governmental advocacy organization. "Transferring people to countries where they face torture violates international law, regardless of what empty promises a country gives… The U.N. committee noted that Egypt had a well-documented history of torture abuses, especially when dealing with terrorism suspects. It said that Egypt's routine use of torture, in combination with interest in Agiza by the U.S. as well as Egypt, should have led to a 'natural conclusion' that he was at risk of torture upon return."

Egypt — a key ally of the United States — has long been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after only Israel. Its secret police are notorious for their brutality during interrogations. The U.S. State Department noted in a 2002 human rights report their frequent torture of prisoners, during which people were stripped, blindfolded, suspended from the ceiling or door frame with their feet just touching the floor; beaten with whips, fists, metal rods; subjected to electric shocks; and doused with cold water.

Canada apologizes to citizen

Canadian citizen Maher Arar was born in Syria in 1970 and emigrated to Canada as a teenager, settling in Montreal. In September 2002, he visited Tunisia with his family and was returning home to Canada via the United States. At New York's Kennedy International Airport he was arrested, strip-searched and then held in an immigration detention center for 12 days. On October 8, he was told he was being deported to Syria. Shackled, he was taken to New Jersey, put on an executive jet and flown to Jordan. The next day, blindfolded, he was driven across the border to Syria and taken to Far Falestin, the notorious detention center run by the Syrian military intelligence.

Witnesses to a Commission of Inquiry in Canada testified what they and Arar experienced in Far Falestin: "[They] closed the cell door. It was like a grave, exactly like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high." Arar told the Commission he met the person he later discovered was the head interrogator, identified as George Salloum, and gave this account:

Salloum introduced him to "the chair" — a torture device capable of breaking a detainee's back. Arar could hear fellow prisoners screaming with pain. Soon he was receiving the same treatment. He was beaten about his body, four lashes with a two-foot-long electric cable that had been shredded. Then he was asked questions. The torture would stop and start, getting worse and worse. He admitted being trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan only because he had decided to "say anything" necessary to avoid torture. He was constantly warned that "tomorrow will be worse." He slept only two or three hours a night, on a cold concrete floor, known to his guards only by his cell number: Two.

Arar reported that he and other detainees were doused with cold water and had the soles of their feet beaten with thick black plastic cables. Another detainee told investigators that he was ordered to undress, except for his underwear. Interrogators then poured cold water on his body while he stood. He was then laid on the floor and, as interrogators trained a fan on him, more cold water was poured over him. They asked him to raise his legs from the knee and started beating him with black rubber cables.

Arar confessed to membership in al Qaeda, even though the Canadian Commission of Inquiry subsequently found that he had absolutely no connection with the organization or terrorism. After 10 months and 10 days of detention, he was transferred to Sednaya Prison, also in Syria, where he reported that conditions were "like heaven" compared with Far Falestin. On October 5, 2003, he was released from custody after signing a "confession" given to him by a Syrian prosecutor. He has since been awarded $8.9 million in damages (and an official apology) by the Canadian government but remains on a U.S. terrorist watch list.

How the CIA's cover was blown

The aircraft used to transfer detainees from one country to another were supposed to be part of a clandestine CIA operation, but a sloppy mistake blew their cover and helped European investigators create a comprehensive record of renditions.

One frequently used aircraft was Gulfstream N379P, whose trips included delivery of Agiza and El Zari to Egypt. The company that owned it, Premier Executive Transport Services, was a CIA front whose officers had post office box addresses where 325 fictitious names also were registered. The plane's connection began to emerge when another of its renditions got under way at 2:40 a.m. on October 23, 2001, at a little-used terminal at Karachi International Airport in Pakistan.

A 27-year-old Yemeni man, Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, had been apprehended by the Pakistan intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He was taken blindfolded and in chains to be handed over to the CIA. Suspected of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, he had been reported missing for three weeks from Karachi University, where he was studying microbiology. He was flown from Pakistan to Jordan and then promptly disappeared.

What gave this transfer significance was the clumsy way in which it was handled. According to Pakistani sources, an airport official at the Karachi airport demanded a landing fee from the CIA plane. The crew refused. ISI agents then instructed airport staff that they would pay the fees, and the plane took off. But the incident created a minor stir that drew attention to the Gulfstream, which had been tucked away in a quiet corner of the airport so as not to be conspicuous.

On October 26, 2001, Masood Anwar, a Pakistani journalist with The News in Islamabad, wrote how Mohammed claimed he had been flown out of the country aboard a plane bearing tail number N379P. Those details ricocheted via the Internet among spy-hunters, bloggers and plane-spotting enthusiasts curious about precisely how the newly declared war on terrorism was being conducted.

Research by human rights groups, journalists and European governments subsequently revealed that the CIA had operated some 30 aircraft disguised by the use of companies like Premier Executive Transport Services and in other ways. Other aircraft were leased to operating companies and their subsidiaries. Eurocontrol data showed that 32 such aircraft made at least 1,245 stopovers in the various European countries.

Dozens of flights went to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. was detaining terrorism suspects. European investigators believed many of the flights were for extraordinary renditions. Eurocontrol data show the CIA planes made the following stopovers between October 2001 and the end of 2005: 76 in Azerbaijan; 72 in Jordan; 61 in Egypt; 52 in Turkmenistan; 46 in Uzbekistan; 40 in Iraq; 40 in Morocco; 38 in Afghanistan; and 14 in Libya.