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.”

Yet Arar suffered brutal torture. According to the commission’s report, on the second day at the Palestine Branch, after a night without sleep, George Salloum, the chief interrogator, “brought a black cable, which might have been a shredded electric cable, about two feet long, into the room with him.” Arar started to cry. Salloum told Arar to hold out his right hand. Arar did. Salloum hit him with the cable. Then he told him to hold out his left hand. He whacked it. Arar could hear the screams of other prisoners being tortured. One day the interrogation and beatings lasted nearly eighteen hours. “The pattern was three or four lashes with the cable, then questions, followed by more beating,” the report says. Twice he urinated on himself; he was forced to wear the same clothes for the next two and a half months.

The Canadian commission’s report provides details of Arar’s detention, which it describes as “degrading and inhumane”:

He was kept in a basement cell that was seven feet high, six feet long, and three feet wide. The cell contained only two thin blankets, a “humidity isolator,” and two bottles—one for water and one for urine. The only source of light in the cell was a small opening in the ceiling, measuring roughly one foot by two feet. According to Mr. Arar, cats would sometimes urinate through the opening.

At the time of his arrest, Arar, according to the report, was returning from a vacation with his wife’s family in Tunisia. He switched planes in Zurich and headed to New York, where he would change planes again before flying to Montreal. But when he landed at JFK and went through immigration,8 he was stopped, photographed, fingerprinted, and strip-searched, “an experience he found ‘humiliating,'” O’Connor writes. He was, it turned out, on a watch list, put there because of allegations by the Canadian government. In the aftermath of September 11, Canadian police had begun to monitor the small Syrian community in Canada. Arar and his wife, Monia Mazigh, were Syrians, and they fell under further suspicion when Arar was seen having lunch, and then taking a walk in the rain, with another Syrian, who was being followed by the Canadian police.

In October 2001—a year before his arrest—the Canadian police alerted US officials that Arar, who has a master’s in telecommunications, and Mazigh, who has a doctorate in finance, were “Islamic Extremist individuals suspected of being linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist movement.” But Commissioner O’Connor writes that this description was “inaccurate, without any basis,” and in the United States in the fall of 2001, “potentially extremely inflammatory.” Indeed, after holding and questioning Arar for eleven days, and exchanging information with Canadian officials, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service declared that the evidence “unequivocally reflects that Mr. Arar is a member of a foreign terrorist organization, to wit, Al Qaeda.”

It is not clear what information the INS was relying on. By this time, the Canadians had backed off the report that they had sent a year earlier, and told the Americans there was virtually no evidence linking Arar, or his wife, to al-Qaeda. The police “did not have evidence to support a search warrant or a wiretap, let alone the evidence to lay criminal charges,” the commission’s report says. Nor did the Americans have evidence of their own. In a telephone conversation on October 5, 2002, an FBI agent told an officer in Canada’s Criminal Intelligence Directorate that the United States did not have any basis for pressing charges against Arar. Would Arar be arrested if he were returned to Canada? the FBI official asked. No, the Canadian official said, there was insufficient evidence to detain him in Canada either. Not wanting to let Arar go free, the Americans sent him to Syria, without telling the Canadians, who had been led to believe that if Arar were not allowed into the US, he would simply be sent to back to Zurich, where his flight to the United States had originated. (The Bush administration refused to cooperate with the Canadian investigation, as did the governments of Syria and Jordan.9 )

For all the abusive treatment he received, Arar was far more fortunate than hundreds of other suspected terrorists who remain trapped in the post–September 11 system set up by the Bush administration. He was set free in August 2005, after the Canadian government, embarrassed by the efforts of Arar’s wife to make known his fate in the press, put pressure on Syria to release him.

But when Arar got home, “his torment did not end,” Commissioner O’Connor writes. “Unnamed” government officials who sought to smear him before his story had embarrassed them leaked accusations against him to the press. Even before Arar’s return, one “anonymous” Canadian official described him to a reporter as a “very bad guy,” and said he had undergone training with al-Qaeda—a claim he denies and for which no evidence has been produced. Another article in a Canadian paper cited “high-level sources in the US and Canada” who said that he had trained in Afghanistan. “This guy is not a virgin,” a “senior intelligence source” told the reporter. Still another article cited “officials” saying “Arar was not tortured.” Some of the leaks, O’Connor concluded, “were purposefully misleading in a way that was intended to do him harm.”

For the most part, O’Connor’s report uses straightforward language and states clear findings, but here he describes merely as “misleading” statements that are outright lies. Still, about the leakers, he writes, “It is disturbing that there are officials in the Canadian public service who see fit to breach the public trust for their own purposes in this way,” he writes. O’Connor’s mandate was only to examine the conduct of government officials, not the press, so he does not say, as he could have, that journalists were disturbingly willing to publish unverified claims that were damaging to Arar. Far too many reporters, including this one, have published allegations of terrorism, or of “links to al-Qaeda,” based on assertions from officials who would not be named, and who turned out to be wrong.


In her statement at Andrews Air Force Base before leaving on her European trip, Secretary Rice said, “The United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances.” She added: “The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.”

This seemed no more than a legalistic evasion. Rendition is not “for the purpose of interrogation using torture”; its purpose is to extract information. And as Rice and Bush must have known, there have been convincing reports that people who have been subject to rendition and sent to such countries as Jordan and Uzbekistan have in fact been tortured.

In commenting on Arar’s torture in Syria, Commissioner O’Connor said:

The actions of the SMI [Syrian Military Intelligence] with respect to Mr. Arar were entirely consistent with Syria’s widespread reputation for abusing prisoners being held in connection with terrorism-related investigations.

A veteran CIA case officer, Burton Gerber, who spent thirty-nine years with the agency and received its Distinguished Intelligence Medal, told Grey:

It seems to me a little disingenuous to say, yes, we sent these people there, and that we don’t want them to be tortured…. If you send someone to somewhere like Syria or Egypt, then what are you really expecting to happen to them there?… It’s a corruption of the human soul as much as if we did it ourselves.

Edward Walker Jr., a career diplomat, was the US ambassador in Egypt between 1994 and 1997 when some of the first renditions took place. According to Walker, there were only a few occasions when the procedure was used, and they concerned men who were wanted by the Egyptians for terrorist acts allegedly committed there. Walker thought it was a good policy. “They were bad guys, and they were set on causing harm. And you know it’s not a perfect world,” he told Grey. But he was under no illusions about how they would be treated. “I cannot believe that anybody that was involved in this,” he said, “didn’t in his heart of hearts, if he was halfway intelligent, think that they were getting abusive interrogation techniques that were tantamount to torture.”

Grey asked Walker: “When Condoleezza Rice and the President now stand in front of people and say we don’t send people to countries where they torture, are they telling the truth?”

Walker replied: “No, they’re not telling the truth.”
A former CIA officer was more colorful. “Coming out and saying ‘we don’t do torture’ is as bad as President Clinton saying, ‘I didn’t have sex with that woman.'” he told Grey. “It’s a bare-faced lie. Of course we do torture. Imagine putting President Bush’s head under water and telling him to raise his hand when he thinks he’s being tortured. Give him the water-board treatment, and he’d be raising his hand straightaway.”


While Grey leaves no doubt that people subject to rendition are tortured, he also makes it clear how little we know of the world in which Americans in black dress and black masks escort people on secret planes to secret prisons to be tortured. As he observes, when the government claims someone is dangerous and a member of al-Qaeda, and the person arrested says he is an innocent farmer or businessman, how do we know the truth when we can’t see the government’s proof because it says the evidence must remain classified?

We don’t know, for example, whether Americans are present in the room during the interrogations in Egypt, Syria, and the other places. It is hard to believe they are not. Would the CIA seize someone it considers a dangerous terrorist, fly him at great cost in a private plane to a secret location, and then just leave him in the hands of foreign interrogators, doing no more than supplying questions? The administration said there was an urgency that justified the use of tough interrogation tactics to get information in order to deter the next terrorist attack, and providing set questions to foreign interrogators would have been too slow. Besides, good interrogation techniques require a relationship between the interrogator and the detainee.

On April 10, 2002, Binyam Mohamed, a twenty-three-year-old Ethiopian who had studied in London, was arrested at Karachi airport by Pakistani agents acting on behalf of the US government, and thrown into a series of local jails. Three months later, he was delivered to American agents at Islamabad’s military airport. Around 10 PM on the day of the handover, according to Grey, a group of men wearing black masks—the “uniform,” Grey says, of the CIA’s rendition group—rushed into the small room where Binyam was being held. Binyam later said that “they stripped me naked, took photos, put fingers up my anus, and dressed me in a track suit. I was then shackled, with earphones, and blindfolded.” He was, then, Grey writes, shoved onto a CIA Gulfstream V, tail number N379P, which, according to records, had in the past five days flown from Johnston County Airport in North Carolina (which is close to Fort Bragg, home of Special Forces) to Washington, D.C., Frankfurt, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, Amman, and Kabul, from where it was coming now. With Binyam on board, the plane flew to Morocco. Binyam was to be questioned about his alleged connections to Jose Padilla, an American citizen who had been accused of planning to carry out an al-Qaeda plot to detonate a dirty bomb in the US.

In Morocco, Binyam said that his interrogators—“torture team,” he called it—included a woman in her early thirties, with blue eyes and blond hair. She told Binyam she was from Canada, but he thought she was American. At one point she said, according to Binyam, “If you don’t talk to me, the Americans are getting ready to carry out the torture. They’re going to electrocute you, beat you, and rape you.”

Binyam was held, interrogated, and tortured in Morocco for eighteen months. The lead “tormentor,” as Binyam called him, was about 6’2″ and weighed 200 pounds. One day, he and three “thugs” stripped Binyam. First they took a scalpel and made a cut on his right chest. Then on his left. Binyam describes what happened next:

One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction. I was in agony, crying, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming…. They must have done this 20 to 30 times, in maybe two hours. There was blood all over.

They cut all over my private parts. One of them said it would be better just to cut it off, as I would only breed terrorists.

Mamdouh Habib, a naturalized Australian born in Egypt, had a similar experience after being picked up in Pakistan in October 2001. According to American and Australian officials, he had trained with al-Qaeda, an allegation Habib will not discuss.10 During his initial interrogation in Pakistan, an American man and two American women were present, including one who sounds like the woman who interrogated Binyam. He described her as blond, “very beautiful,” about thirty-five years old, and able to speak Arabic as well as American English. When the Americans weren’t in the room, Habib said, he was severely beaten, hung by hooks on the wall, and forced to stand on a barrel where he was given electric shocks. Then he would be taken back for more interrogation.

One day, some fifteen to twenty burly men, wearing black masks, black T-shirts, and sand-colored combat boots, dragged Habib from his cell. From their speech, he felt sure they were Americans. One of them had a tattoo of an American flag on his right wrist. They cut off his clothes, forced him to bend over—“they put something in my bottom.” They then put him in Pampers and handcuffed and shackled him. An American man from the interrogation sessions was present, he said.

Habib was put on a plane and taken to Egypt. He was not wanted there for any terrorist or criminal activity. The torture continued. He was handcuffed and shackled, and a rod was run between the handcuffs and the shackles. Then men began jumping on him. He was forced to strip. A barking dog was brought in behind him. His tormentors said that the dog had been trained to have sex with humans.

One day, he said, he overheard two men, one speaking American English, the other Australian, talking about the questions that they were to ask Habib. During the interrogations, by looking down through the bottom of the bag over his head, he could see two men with files on their knees. One file had a picture of the Sydney Opera House on it. The men wrote in the files. A guard who had befriended Habib told him that one of the men was an American and the other Australian.

Were they? Who was the woman who interrogated Binyam and who was the woman who interrogated Habib? Were they the same woman? Was she, or were they, American? Was she, or they, ever present during the torture? Or did they go out of the room during the torture, then go back in to ask more questions? How many prisoners have been rendered to which countries, and what abuses have they suffered? Who was the man with the tattoo of the American flag? Following the recent elections, committees in the House and Senate, particularly the Senate Judiciary Committee, could demand answers to such questions. The European Union has already criticized European governments for allowing their airports and airspace to be used for secret flights of CIA prisoners. On November 29, a special European Parliament committee made public a scathing report on European complicity in CIA renditions. Among its findings, the report concludes that “at least 1,245 flights operated by the CIA” in its rendition program “have flown into the European airspace or stopped over at European airports,” and it “condemns, further, the acceptance and concealing of the practice, on several occasions, by the secret services and governmental authorities of certain European countries.” The report also criticized several countries, including Poland and the United Kingdom, for not cooperating with the committee’s investigation. Among the European officials accused of involvement in CIA renditions is Nicolo Pollari, Italy’s former military intelligence chief, for allowing CIA agents to kidnap a militant Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003 and deliver him to Egypt. In early December, Italian prosecutors asked for Pollari’s indictment, in what could be the first case to examine the practice of extraordinary rendition in court.11

The US Congress could follow the example of Canada and the European Union and appoint a high-level commission to investigate rendition and torture, and the Australian prime minister could appoint a royal commission to investigate the Habib case, which is similar to Arar’s. The Bush administration will probably claim that it must keep all such matters secret for reasons of security. Unless it can be strongly challenged, nothing seems likely to be done.

December 13, 2006

This Issue

January 11, 2007