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The CIA’s Secret Torture

Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar

by the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar
Three volumes, 1,657 pp., available at www.ararcommission.ca/eng/26.htm


On December 5, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, about to fly across the Atlantic, must have known she faced a hard time from the press. Over the previous year, stories had been published that suspected terrorists were being seized by American agents abroad and “rendered” to third countries, countries with notorious reputations for brutal treatment of political prisoners, such as Egypt, Syria, Morocco, and Uzbekistan. Then, four weeks before her trip, The Washington Post had a front-page story that some of the CIA’s secret prisons were in Eastern Europe. The New York Times followed, four days before Rice’s departure, with a story that linked the renditions to secret CIA flights. According to the Times‘s analysis, since September 11, 2001, CIA planes had made 307 flights in Europe; 94 in Germany; 76 in Britain; 33 in Ireland; and more than a dozen in each of Portugal, Spain, and the Czech Republic.1

European governments demanded explanations, claiming they weren’t aware of the secret flights. Before stepping on the plane at Andrews Air Force Base, Rice decided to address the issue before she was questioned about it in Germany. In these times, she said, the traditional systems of justice don’t work. And besides, there was nothing really new about rendition—technically the act of handing over or surrendering persons from one legal jurisdiction to another without going through the formal, and lengthy, extradition process. “For decades,” she continued, “the United States and other countries have used ‘renditions’ to transport terrorist suspects from the country where they were captured to their home country or to other countries where they can be questioned, held, or brought to justice.” Ramzi Youssef, she noted, the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, had been seized in Islamabad in 1995 by the FBI. She also mentioned the case of Carlos the Jackal, who had been seized in Sudan by French commandos in 1994.2

In Ghost Plane, Stephen Grey includes a short but essential history of rendition, and it shows Rice’s statement to be incomplete, marked by half-truths, and ingeniously misleading. It is true that rendition has been practiced for decades. But in the past, suspects like Ramzi Youssef and Carlos the Jackal had been taken to the country that seized them: Youssef was rendered to the United States, where he was put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Carlos the Jackal was taken to France to stand trial, and is now serving a life sentence there. In contrast, the policy of spiriting a kidnapped suspect to a third country is only a decade old, and taking the suspect there not to stand trial but to be interrogated is a practice that first came into use under the Bush administration.

In fact, rendition has been taking place for more than a century. As early as 1883, the Supreme Court upheld the kidnapping of a wanted felon in Peru to bring him back to Illinois to stand trial. The Court upheld this practice as recently as 1992, when a Mexican national accused of killing a DEA agent was abducted and brought to the US for trial. The American government expanded its rendition policy in the mid-1990s. In Presidential Decision Directive 39, issued in 1995, President Clinton declared that “terrorism” was “a potential threat to national security,” and that the United States would “pursue vigorously efforts to deter and preempt, apprehend and prosecute” terrorists. That much of the directive has been made public. But another provision of the directive remains classified. In it, Stephen Grey writes in Ghost Plane, the President said that American agents could carry out a rendition by “secretly putting the fugitive in a plane back to America, or some third country for trial” (emphasis added). Grey found this summary of the still-classified provision in the Staff Statement of the Report of the 9/11 Commission.

As Grey writes, this secret directive prepared the way for what, in the Bush administration, has become known as “extraordinary rendition”:

In essence, the US government chose to outsource its handling of terrorists because neither the first President Bush, nor Clinton nor his Republican opponents were prepared to establish a proper legal framework for the United States to capture, interrogate, and imprison terrorists itself; nor to take the more direct military or diplomatic action required to eliminate the leadership of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan; nor to confront countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, whose polices helped to encourage the growth of terrorism; nor to strengthen adequately the CIA’s own key capabilities.

Here Grey accepts, in part, the argument of the Bush administration that its policy follow that of its predecessors. But Grey also goes on to show how the Bush administration has gone much further than any previous administration.3

Under Clinton, the suspects were to be sent only to a third country to stand trial for a terrorist offense allegedly committed or planned in that country. Under Bush, suspected terrorists were now sent to third countries not for trial and not for crimes committed in that country, but for interrogation about alleged terrorist plots against the United States.

One of the first known of the Bush rendition cases involved a twenty-four-year-old Pakistani, Muhammad Saad Iqbal, who in January 2002 was seized by the CIA in Jakarta, where he had gone to visit his stepmother. Iqbal was put on a CIA Gulfstream and flown to Egypt. At the time, Indonesian and American officials told reporters that Iqbal was wanted by Egypt for crimes committed there.4 This wasn’t true. And contrary to what Grey writes—apparently on the basis of newspaper accounts—the Egyptians didn’t request that he be sent to Cairo. American agents took him there because the prison at Guantánamo Naval Station in Cuba was not yet fully in use; and besides, Egypt—a country which has a long history of using torture against political prisoners—was seen by the CIA as a good place to conduct interrogations.5


If Watergate was about ‘follow the money,’ the story of renditions was about ‘follow the planes,’” Grey writes. “Ever since the CIA turned to clandestine warfare, it has needed a discreet aviation wing,” he observes. “Planes could drop and pick up agents behind enemy lines. They could survey difficult targets, drop supplies, and transport prisoners away. But,” he adds, “planes are also quite difficult to hide.”6

In July 2003, Grey quit as the head of the investigative unit at the London Sunday Times in order to find and follow the fleet of planes the CIA used for renditions.7 He started with news accounts from around the world—Pakistan, Sweden, Indonesia—of CIA planes spiriting away suspected terrorists. Some of the accounts included the plane’s tail number.

If a congressional committee ever decides to hold hearings into the rendition program, it should hire Grey. He had little money and no subpoena power, but he uncovered a vast network of planes, their flights, and the mailbox drop companies that the CIA used as covers. He had the help of plane watchers who report their sightings on the Web. He found that the Federal Aviation Administration provides information on flights in “real time,” as they occur. “The data is accessible from anywhere,” Grey says. “Osama bin Laden in his Afghan cave (if equipped with an Internet connection) could have watched the four flights of September 11 as they veered off their normal course and began heading toward the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” And Grey was helped by the fact that the CIA was sometimes sloppy. The owner of a plane can ask that its movements not be reported, and under a voluntary code, Grey says, aviation Web sites would not publish the data. “Curiously, in the case of CIA planes, the agency appeared remarkably slow in using this feature,” Grey says. “Time and again, they seemed to ignore the most obvious ways of keeping their operations secure.” By following the planes, Grey tells the chilling story of rendition and torture.


At 5:40 AM on October 8, 2002, a Gulfstream III, tail number N829MG, operated by a Florida company called Presidential Aviation, took off from Teterboro, New Jersey, whose airport is mainly for private planes. First stop was Dulles, for a crew change. At 7:46 AM, it took off for Bangor, Maine, where it stopped for refueling, then it headed to Rome. The plane was on the ground overnight, and at 10:59 the next morning, it headed to Amman, Jordan. On board, handcuffed and shackled to the floor, while federal agents sat in upholstered leather seats, was Maher Arar, a Canadian software engineer who worked for an American company called Mathworks and is the father of two small children. A dual citizen of Syria and Canada who had lived in Canada for seventeen years, Arar had been arrested two weeks earlier as a terror suspect while changing planes at JFK airport. The flight to Jordan probably cost the US government $120,000, according to Grey, and in this case was paid for by the Justice Department.

In Amman, Arar was shoved into a van. If he tried to move or speak, he was beaten by the guards. He was switched to another van, beaten some more, and three hours later, the van had crossed the Jordanian border into Syria and pulled up at the Palestine Branch, one of the world’s most notorious prisons, named for the street where it is located in Damascus. It contained specially designed torture cells, where prisoners would be beaten with electric cables, scorched with cigarettes, placed in a device designed to induce paralysis called a “German chair,” or threatened with submersion in a barrel of excrement. “The Palestine Branch was a prison constructed with torture in mind,” Grey writes. “Everything about it was designed to break the soul.” Arar was beaten by Syrian officials, and for ten months and ten days, he was confined in a coffin-like cell, with rats and cats, stifling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter.

Grey sees Arar’s story as “emblematic of how an innocent man could be caught up and crushed by the manipulation of intelligence.” It also suggests how the American judicial system, and the presumption of innocence, have been perverted in the aftermath of September 11. Arar “was simply lynched,” Grey writes. At the time Grey was writing his book, a high-level government commission in Canada was conducting an inquiry into the Arar case. The commission issued its report in September—three volumes, over 1,600 pages. Its findings are appalling.

I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada,” wrote the head of the inquiry, Dennis O’Connor, an associate chief justice of Ontario. He continued: “Canadian investigators made extensive efforts to find any information that could implicate Mr. Arar in terrorist activities…. They found none.”

  1. 1

    Dana Priest, “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons,” The Washington Post, November 2, 2005; Ian Fisher, “Reports of Secret US Prisons in Europe Draw Ire and Otherwise Red Faces,” The New York Times, December 1, 2005.

  2. 2

    Remarks Upon Her Departure for Europe.” Official State Department Transcript.

  3. 3

    This argument is made in more detail, and forcefully, by Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst who headed up the hunt for bin Laden, in his book Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing the War on Terror (Brassey’s, 2004).

  4. 4

    See Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Peter Finn, “US Behind Secret Transfer of Terror Suspects,” The Washington Post, March 11, 2002; and Don Greenlees, “Love Letter Tracks Terrorist’s Footsteps,” The Australian, February 23, 2002.

  5. 5

    I reported on Iqbal’s case in 2005, going to his neighborhood and talking to relatives in Lahore, Pakistan, and to people who knew him in Indonesia, as well as to Pakistani, Indonesian, and American officials. Iqbal had no criminal record and no history of involvement with any terrorist organization. But he had a tendency to inflate his importance, which may have been what got him into trouble, for he claimed to know Osama bin Laden. After he was picked up and interrogated in Jakarta, American officials quickly concluded that he was a “wannabe,” a “blowhard.” Still, he was taken to Egypt, and eventually Guantánamo. According to detainees since released, he has been driven crazy. See Raymond Bonner, “Terror Suspect’s Ordeal in US Custody,” The New York Times, December 18, 2005. Iqbal’s hearing before the Combatant Status Review Tribunal is in Set 1 of the fifty-three sets released by the Pentagon in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Associated Press. See www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/detainees/csrt/index.html.

  6. 6

    Two other journalists who have deftly tracked down the secret CIA flights are the photographer Trevor Paglen and the investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, in Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights (Melville House, 2006), which provides new details about the “planespotters” who first identified the operation and the private companies and regional American airports involved.

  7. 7

    Grey works now as a freelance writer and has a contract with the Times. I have talked with him about renditions and flights, and am mentioned in the acknowledgments, along with several other Times reporters.

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