This week’s Frontline film, Extraordinary Rendition can be watched at the PBS site here.
Here is the PBS synopsis:
In a crowded city in northern Egypt, FRONTLINE/World investigative reporter Stephen Grey tracks down a man who was once one of the CIA’s “ghost prisoners.” The bulky, bearded man he finds is Abu Omar al-Masri, an Egyptian cleric who had moved to Milan, Italy.
“I was kidnapped on the 17th February, 2003,” he tells Grey. “Then I disappeared from history.”
Abu Omar had been preaching at a mosque in Milan. The Italian police began to suspect that he was recruiting young Muslims to wage jihad against Americans. The CIA put him under surveillance, believing he was plotting a bomb attack on a school bus of American children. One day, CIA agents suddenly snatched him off the streets of Milan and loaded him on to a secret Gulfstream jet. The next thing he knew, he was back in Egypt, where he says he was interrogated and tortured.
“They started to beat me,” says Abu Omar, “with their fists, with sticks, with truncheons.”
Abu Omar says his torture lasted 14 months; the worst of it taking place at the secret police headquarters in Cairo. To date, more than 60 prisoners are believed to have been sent there by the United States.
This is the dark story of “extraordinary rendition,” says Grey, a secret program in which the United States captures terror suspects around the world and flies them to countries like Egypt, Syria or Morocco, where, critics say, torture is routine.
“We cannot deny that there could be some excesses, some acts of cruelty by security officers,” Egyptian General Ahmad Omar tells Grey. But he denies that torture is state policy and he insists that Egyptian and U.S. intelligence agencies are justified in taking action against those suspected of terrorist activities.
Now released from jail, Abu Omar maintains his innocence, saying he’s willing to defend himself in court if the Egyptians or the Americans ever charge him with a crime. Guilty or not, Abu Omar and his rendition have become a disaster for the CIA. Italian police investigating the case were able to identify the CIA agents involved. They are set to go on trial, in absentia, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap — a rare and politically embarrassing instance of a U.S. ally in Europe trying CIA agents in court.
For the last four years, Stephen Grey has been investigating stories of extraordinary rendition like Abu Omar’s. The Bush administration hasn’t spoken about Abu Omar, but under increasing pressure to reveal information about terror suspects apprehended and jailed secretly, they’ve officially acknowledged dozens of cases like his. They claim that when they send terror suspects to other countries, they get assurances they won’t be tortured, but even former CIA officials admit those claims are worthless.
“You can say we asked them not to do it, but you have to be honest with yourself and say there’s no way we can guarantee they are going to do that,” says Tyler Drumheller, who ran CIA operations in Europe at the time Abu Omar was kidnapped and “rendered” to Egypt. “Once you turn them over you have no control over that.”
Drumheller had mixed feelings about renditions abroad, but he was even more concerned about a plan put forward after 9/11 for the CIA to hold prisoners themselves in secret jails.
“We are an intelligence service, an espionage service,” insists Drumheller. “Not jailers, not a policeman, not interrogators. We debrief people; we don’t interrogate them. Everything that the military didn’t want to do or felt uncomfortable doing ended up in the lap of the CIA.”
After the war began in Afghanistan in 2002, the CIA set up its first secret jails or “black sites.” One of them, located just outside Kabul, was known as the “dark prison.”
“The dark prison was run by the Americans,” a former inmate, Bisher al-Rawi, tells Grey. “It wasn’t Afghani people flying the aircraft, it wasn’t Afghani people who sort of shackled me and did whatever they did to me. It was Americans.”
Bisher al-Rawi is an Iraqi-born British resident, who once acted as a messenger between an al Qaeda suspects in London and British intelligence. In 2002, while he was on a business trip to Gambia in West Africa, the CIA had al-Rawi and several colleagues arrested. Bound, gagged and hooded by American agents, al-Rawi was drugged and put on a plane to Afghanistan.
Transferred to the “dark prison,” al-Rawi says he was confined to a cell where, “You can’t see the end of your nose” and where he was subjected to continuous eerie music.
Eventually, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he spent four years before being released without charge in early 2007. Al-Rawi believes he was held, like many others, just on the hope he’d offer new intelligence.
The “dark prison” in Afghanistan was one of the first CIA “black sites,” but not the last.
By early 2003, the United States was negotiating secret agreements with governments in Eastern Europe to set up black sites on their territory. A report this summer by the Council of Europe declared it had proof of two CIA black sites, one on the east coast of Romania, the other at an airbase in Poland.
“Methods of interrogation were ‘enhanced’, which is a euphemism. It’s totally unacceptable,” says Dick Marty who led the European investigation of the CIA black sites. “There was waterboarding, when you pretend to drown someone, and you only stop when he’s unable to breathe. Sleep deprivation, bright lights, loud noise. These are all methods of torture.”
The CIA went to great lengths to cover up evidence of the flights that brought men to the Polish black site, but Grey obtains the flight plan of a Gulfstream jet that left three passengers there, including, it appears, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks.
The problem for the CIA was what to do with such prisoners in the long term, since they were being detained outside the U.S. legal system. Under pressure, President Bush announced in September 2006 that the CIA black sites were finally being emptied.
The plan was to bring the al Qaeda prisoners before military tribunals, but their prosecutions may be compromised because they were held for years in CIA secret prisons and subjected to interrogations using extreme techniques.
“We really have created a mess here, a terrible mess,” says Lawrence Wilkerson, who served in the U.S. State Department during the Bush administration. “For the people who are involved in it. For the legal system that will have to sort it out, under a new president. For the country. For our reputation. For our prestige around the world. This has been incredibly damaging.”
New questions about the future of extraordinary rendition have now surfaced a world away in East Africa. Grey travels to Mombasa, Kenya, a Muslim city on the Indian Ocean to chase down a rumor of a rendition that took place earlier this year.
This is also the region where al Qaeda declared war on America in 1998 with simultaneous bombings on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people, mostly Africans. The man accused of coordinating the attacks, Fazul Abdullah, alias Harun, has never been caught.
Fazul was said to be hiding in Somalia. Last December, when Ethiopia moved its army into Somalia, the United States went after him, launching bombing raids against the country’s suspected al Qaeda hideouts. Thousands fled for the Kenyan border. Some were picked up in a dragnet by the Kenyan anti-terrorist police and disappeared without a trace.
Outraged Muslims in Mombasa began to protest and a Kenyan human rights lawyer took up the cause. The activist, Alamin Kimathi, shows Grey a flight manifest he obtained as part of the court case. It is rare documentary evidence of an extraordinary rendition. The Kenyans had taken a page out the CIA’s handbook. Eighty-five people, including 11 children, had been put on the planes. The passenger list includes Fazul Abdullah’s wife and daughters.
Kimathi tells Grey he believes the wife and children were “hostages…pure and simple,” detained in an effort to “smoke out” Fazul Abdullah. The tactic did not work.
A former FBI agent involved in anti-terrorist work, Jack Cloonan, says he believes the Kenyans would not have acted without the knowledge and support of the U.S. “It would be naïve frankly in this day and age to think that the FBI or the CIA, primarily the CIA, is not witting of what’s going on. In point of fact I’d suggest to you that they probably were witting and they were the power brokers behind the scenes pushing this forward.”
The prisoners were “rendered” on a Kenyan plane to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a U.S. ally, which has its own conflicts with neighboring Muslim countries.
Grey believes this could be an indication of a new way in which renditions are being carried out by third countries, while U.S. officials remain in the shadows.
“It’s disappointing,” says former FBI special agent Jack Cloonan. “The thing that you saw in Africa, where people are being held incommunicado and have no legal representation and potentially abused, is unacceptable. You’re setting up yourself for revenge by al Qaeda and other Islamists.”
This fall, President Bush was forced once more to defend rendition and secret detention. “I have put this program in place for a reason,” Bush told reporters. “When we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we’re going to detain them, and you bet we’re going to question them.”
Despite criticism of “extraordinary renditions” by many CIA insiders, the president has now signed a new executive order that clears the way, once again, for the CIA to interrogate terrorist suspects in secret black sites.
November 7th, 2007