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


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.