Torture and Secrecy Scandal Intensifies

Human Rights

"Rendition" -- what many call kidnapping -- is the highly controversial practice of transporting detainees seized overseas by US agents to countries known for using torture, and holding them there for interrogation.

On Sunday, the Washington Post detailed how a German citizen was seized in Europe by the CIA, beaten, drugged and held in a secret Afghanistan prison for five months before the agency realized they had the wrong man.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Europe on Monday for a five-day trip to address the issue. Last month, the European Union wrote to Rice expressing concern over reports that the US was using secret jails in Europe for its rendition program. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it is taking the CIA to court over its rendition program.

Citing interviews with current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials, the Post reported that after the September 11 attacks, the staff of the CIA's Counterterroist Center -- or CTC -- quadrupled in size nearly overnight. The center's Rendition Group is made up of case officers, paramilitaries, analysts and psychologists.

According to the Post, members of the group follow a simple but standard procedure: "Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip. Their destinations: either a detention facility operated by cooperative countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, or one of the CIA's own covert prisons…which at various times have been operated in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe."

The CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people since 9/11. There is no tribunal or judge to check the evidence against those picked up by the agency. The CIA's inspector general is now investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions."

Amy Goodman of radio show Democracy Now! interviewed Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Andrew Tyrie, a British Member of Parliament, who is a Tory and a chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is an amazing story in the Washington Post, especially in its details about what happened to this one man, Khaled Masri.

Beginning with the cooperation of the German government, which was anti-Iraq war, and the US, Dana Priest -- the writer -- begins, "In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the C.I.A.'s Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation."

Priest goes on to write, "Coats informed the German minister that the C.I.A. had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries and possible legal challenges to the C.I.A. from Masri and others with similar allegations."

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Dana Priest's story was absolutely amazing because of the detail. I mean, we have all known about the extraordinary rendition program for a long time.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has had this case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was detained at Kennedy airport, sent to Syria where he was tortured, but what this story does is put detail on it. It talks about this unit that's set up in the basement of the C.I.A.-- 1,200 people working on extraordinary rendition. It talks about "black sites," which are C.I.A. sites, which may even be in Europe, Romania and Poland. And then, of course, it has the story of Khaled El-Masri, who was innocent, picked up, taken to Afghanistan, interrogated, tortured and then released, with the Germans closely involved.

What I think is going on here is that Europe has been deeply involved in this whole process. Certainly, the intelligence agencies of Europe have been involved. And hundreds of [C.I.A.] flights have gone out of Germany, taking people all over the world to be tortured. And now that it's being exposed, Europe is sitting there demanding from the U.S., 'Tell us what's going on. Tell us what's happening.'

Yet at the same time, they have been involved in not only some of their countries allowing these camps to be there, but in allowing these flights to go from Sweden, from England, from Germany, from Spain, all over Europe, to take people to torture facilities everywhere in the world.

What it reminds me of… is what we all see now -- Pinochet in Chile is being condemned, and may actually have to stand trial for Operation Condor; the running of, essentially, a gulag through South America where he picked up people, had them tortured and killed and taken to various facilities. And you have to ask yourself: What's the difference between what the United States is doing now in cooperation with Europe -- essentially running a worldwide gulag of detention and torture facilities?

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Tyrie, can you talk about the issue of the responsibility of countries that allow planes to land and take off, that are known to be carrying these -- some call them kidnapped -- people who are going through extraordinary rendition, and also the facilities, for example, in Britain… the "black sites" where these people are being interrogated or tortured?

ANDREW TYRIE: Well, let's deal with each of those points in turn. First of all, I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me fairly clear that since Britain, for example, has incorporated the U.N. Convention Against Torture directly into its domestic law, if we are knowingly allowing flights to pass through the U.K., land there, have refueling, and then go on, knowing that it's likely that people are going to be tortured, it strikes me that those actions must make us complicit in the torture and that, therefore, we have broken the Convention.

Likewise, I suspect that we may have broken the Human Rights Act if we have done this. There would also be, possibly, breaches to the criminal law, the ordinary criminal law, which, of course, prohibits torture; and that's a question which another pressure group in Britain called Liberty is actually pursuing with the police authorities at the moment.

As far as your second question is concerned, the problem is none of us know the facts. None of us know whether there is any holding center in the U.K. I think that's unlikely, because I think we would have got to hear about it. I suspect that's perhaps why the American…administration has been setting up these in countries in Eastern Europe….

What I do know -- I hope I have not gone on too long -- is that we need a healthy debate about this in a democracy, and we need to make up our minds whether this is the right way to go. I think torturing people is likely to make the war against terrorism more difficult, not less difficult.

Of course, Condoleezza Rice has now said we must have this healthy debate, but only [on Sunday] her spokesman, Mr. Hanley, was saying these are things that shouldn't be talked about in public. And there does seem to be a pretty flat contradiction between those two points.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know how many torture flights have gone through Britain?

ANDREW TYRIE: No. And there are many allegations being made by plane spotters and others, that [it] may be dozens or hundreds. But it's so difficult to know; unless one can get onto the plane and inspect and find out what's going on, we can't know.

What I do think is -- which is what we will be pressing the government about in the…days and weeks ahead, that it's up to the government to make an effort to find out. The benign neglect that they seem to be going in for at the moment is, in my view, absolutely outrageous. A former foreign office minister has himself said that there seems to be an extraordinary lack of curiosity on behalf of the British government about these actions.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the feeling in the British Parliament right now around this issue? And in Britain, do you call it "kidnapping?"

ANDREW TYRIE: Well, the attitude of a lot of people is deep concern without knowing quite where to turn. A lot of people in Britain, and I'm talking now more widely -- British public opinion -- are very, very concerned about terrorism. You have to remember that in Britain, we have had 30 years of terrorism, so we're quite experienced about it. And I know it's relatively new for the United States, but it's not at all new for us. We've got a spectrum of opinion from some saying, 'Well, if you can torture some information out of people and thereby save some lives, maybe that's a good thing,' right the way through to those who think that torture under any circumstances is completely wrong.

I think that the mood of the British public opinion has moved much more in the direction of those who are against torture. And that's because, I'm afraid, our closest ally, the United States -- or I should say the US administration -- has lost the confidence of a large chunk of British opinion and, indeed, European opinion. And it's done that because, to us, as used to terrorism as we are in Spain, Germany, France, Britain, we think America has overreacted.

We think the U.S. administration overreacted to September 11, that regime change and preemptive action are not the way to go around trying to deal with terrorism, and that what we saw in Abu Ghraib and what we hear about from Guantanamo is not likely to win over the hearts and minds of moderate Muslim opinion.

And we know from hard experience -- the British know in dealing with the I.R.A., the Irish terrorists; the French know from dealing with terrorists in Algeria -- that these techniques, these very, very heavy-handed techniques tend to inflame the problem.

So, it's not just a question of my personal moral repugnance against all this that leads many to be concerned, but it is something much more practical, as well. Is this going to help us actually deal with the problem we've got? And in the view of, I think, an increasing number of the British population, reflected in Parliament, the answer to that is: No, it's not helping us.

AMY GOODMAN: As a Tory M.P., I'm wondering how things break down politically; in terms of the parties, yours [is] a more conservative party.

ANDREW TYRIE: Well, traditionally, the strongest repository of support for human rights issues is in the Labor Party. And so, it is, I suppose, ironic that it should be a conservative who is leading this group. I am a conservative. I should also say there's a very strong strand of libertarian opinion in the Conservative Party, and I'm certainly part of that, who are deeply concerned about the infringement of civil and political liberties that's taking place, not only in Britain but in many other countries.

In Britain, we've had a…big debate about for how long the government may detain people without trial, which is a related issue. And the government was recently defeated in a big debate in Parliament on that issue. The government was asking for 90 days, and that was rejected.

There are a good number of other issues, too, where there's this tension between the libertarian strand and those who say, 'No, we're in a new world, we've got to be much tougher on terrorism.' It crosses party lines now. The Conservative Party is not united, as it might -- one might imagine from their name, behind a view of 'Let's have tougher measures.' The libertarian strand in conservatism in the Conservative Party is, at the moment, I think, much stronger than it was a short while ago, and of course, the Labour Party is deeply divided about it, and Tony Blair has trouble leading his party on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: …I wanted to ask you about this whole issue of the Downing Street memo that the Blair government has forbid any newspaper in Britain to print, that allegedly involves a report that Tony Blair dissuaded President Bush from following through on bombing Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha in Qatar. Your response to that?

ANDREW TYRIE: Well, if it's true, it reflects, I think, quite badly on the American administration, frankly -- that there should be just another example of a colossal misjudgment. I mean, can you think of anything more calculated to stir up moderate Muslim opinion than to go and bomb Al Jazeera? This is meant to be the leader of the democratic world.

The sadness is that for someone like myself, who is an absolutely cut and dried Atlanticist, for whom the alliance with the United States is the bedrock of everything I believe in, as far as defending my country is concerned, and with so many shared values, the irony is that we could be undermining the very values that we're telling other countries that they should adopt. We're undermining the values we're seeking to export by some of the actions we are taking. And that's just one example, if it's true. As for the specifics of the memo, I am a freedom man, and I'm a freedom of information man. And clearly, a document like that should be put into the public domain, and that should happen immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you encouraging a newspaper to defy the Blair government and actually print this memo?

ANDREW TYRIE: Well, that's a matter -- I mean, there's a good number of editors who have made newspapers in Britain sitting on it, I expect, and that will be a decision for them. My view is that this information should be in the public domain. It's an example for those of us who believe in maximum freedom that we can get on such things that in the information age, to a great extent, the rules of discovery and obtaining information in the United States can assist us here in Britain, and vice versa. And that's all to the good.

Maybe I can end on just an optimistic note, before we all get too gloomy about this. Only ten or 15 years ago, we were fighting an oppressive monolith in the form of the Soviet Union, and the forces of freedom are on the march everywhere, and the forces of oppression are in retreat. We won that Cold War, partly because we did not lower ourselves to their techniques, because we did hold out a better way of doing things to the peoples of Eastern Europe, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Well, that's the way now that we have got to embark on, beating this current wave of terrorism, not adopting their methods, but repudiating them and showing that we know a better way.

AMY GOODMAN: Condoleezza Rice is going on the offensive around the issue of black sites, where people are taken to in different countries, and the flights themselves, of which there are hundreds.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Amy, it's a given that what the U.S. is doing in setting up black sites and torturing people, detaining people without any arrest warrant or any court, is flatly illegal. I mean, that's what the Tory minister said, and he's right. He said the Convention Against Torture absolutely prohibits what's going on in rendition and in the black sites, and it prohibits any country in Europe -- anywhere in the world -- from cooperating with the United States, whether by giving them airspace, refueling, helping out at all -- it's considered aiding and abetting torture. So there's not a question here; that's under international law.

And under these countries' domestic law, that's the case as well. The European Union, in particular, has a human rights treaty that prohibits any of this kind of conduct. So, this is extremely, extremely embarrassing for members of the European community.

And Condoleezza Rice going to Europe…arriving, I think, in Germany, which has had, apparently, 467 flights going from Germany to these various detention facilities around the world. She's not saying, 'We didn't do this. Let's understand this.' She's not saying, 'We don't have these detention facilities.' She's not saying, 'We're not torturing people.'

She is trying to make the argument, 'Look at Europe. We're all in this together. We stand or we die together fighting terrorism, and therefore, just take it easy on us. You're involved in this. Not only because you're involved in it actually, but because this is all our fight.'

So, it's incredible to see a Secretary of State now going out and saying, 'The U.S. can set up secret detention facilities, black sites, a gulag around the world,' and try and justify it as saying, 'We're all involved in the fight on torture.'

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a little more from the Washington Post piece that tells the human story of what happened to Khaled Masri.

Dana Priest writes, "Khaled Masri came to the attention of Macedonian authorities on New Year's Eve, 2003. Masri, an unemployed father of five living in Ulm, Germany, said he had gone by bus to Macedonia to blow off steam after a spat with his wife. He was taken off a bus at the border crossing by police because his name was similar to that of an associate of a 9/11 hijacker. The police drove him to Skopje, the capital, and put him in a motel room with darkened windows, he said in a recent interview. The police treated Masri firmly but cordially, asking about his passport, which they insisted was forged, about al-Qaeda, about his hometown mosque. When he pressed them to let him go, they displayed their pistols.

"Unbeknownst to Masri, the Macedonians had contacted the C.I.A. station in Skopje. The station chief was on holiday, but the deputy chief, a junior officer, was excited about the catch and about being able to contribute to the counterterrorism fight…

"Because the European Division chief at headquarters was also on vacation, the deputy dealt directly with the CTC and the head of its al-Qaeda unit. In the first weeks of 2004, an argument arose over whether the C.I.A. should take Masri from local authorities and remove him from the country for interrogation, a classic rendition operation.

"The director of the al-Qaeda unit supported the approach. She insisted he was probably a terrorist, and should be imprisoned and interrogated immediately. Others were doubtful. They wanted to wait and see whether the passport did prove to be fraudulent. Beyond that, there was no evidence Masri was not who he claimed to be -- a German citizen of Arab descent traveling after a disagreement with his wife.

The unit's director won the argument. She ordered Masri captured and flown to a C.I.A. prison in Afghanistan. On the 23rd day of his motel captivity, the police videotaped Masri, bundled him, handcuffed and blindfolded, into a van and drove to a closed-off building at the airport. There, in silence, someone cut off his clothes. As they changed his blindfold, he said, 'I saw seven or eight men with black clothing, wearing masks.'

…Masri said his cell in Afghanistan was cold, dirty, in a cellar, with no light and one dirty cover for warmth. The first night he said he was kicked and beaten and warned by an interrogator: 'You are here in a country where no one knows about you, in a country where there is no law. If you die, we will bury you, and no one will know.'

…Back at the CTC, the counterterrorism headquarters, Masri's passport was given to the Office of Technical Services to analyze. By March, OTS had concluded the passport was genuine. The C.I.A. had imprisoned the wrong man…

Masri said he was visited in prison by a German man with a goatee who called himself 'Sam.' Masri said he asked him if he were from the German government and whether the government knew he was there. Sam said he could not answer either question. Masri asked, 'Does my wife at least know where I am?' Sam replied, 'No, she does not.'"

MICHAEL RATNER: Remarkable, of course…his wife did not know where he was. He had two young children, and she figured he had married another woman, actually, or left her. And she moves back to her country of Lebanon, not knowing anything about what happened to her husband. A remarkable story.

Unfortunately, you know, it's one that Europe has known about for a long time. I mean, I think the minister referred to in the article used to be a Green, a progressive man, a lawyer, Otto Schily, and yet he is sitting there helping the C.I.A. hide what happens to a German resident. We had Swedish men who were sent out of Sweden to Egypt for torture. We had a man picked off the streets in Italy, Abu Omar, sent to Egypt for torture.

Now a very, very courageous Italian magistrate has indicted 22 C.I.A. agents for that kidnapping off the streets of Italy, including the C.I.A. station chief. This is going on throughout Europe. For Europe to now be screaming and crying about it -- maybe it wasn't known by some of the officials, but it was certainly known on many, many levels of various European governments.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the issue in Milan in Italy. Well, there was a piece yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, which is datelined Rome. It says, "He's not been arrested. He's probably nowhere near Italy, but a former C.I.A. station chief has begun to sketch his defense against charges he led a clandestine operation that kidnapped a radical Egyptian Imam from the streets of Milan. Robert Seldon Lady, identified by Italian prosecutors and law enforcement officials as the retired station chief in Milan is one of 22 current or former C.I.A. operatives for whom Italian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants in connection with the 2003 abduction. The cleric was seized on his way to a mosque, bundled off to an Egyptian jail where he later says he was tortured. The case is being watched closely because it threatens to expose in the greatest detail yet, the Bush administration's practice of extraordinary rendition."

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, Amy, one thing that's going on here is the C.I.A. and the C.I.A. people who are actually doing this stuff, the torture or the rendering, are getting frightened, because here you have Italy saying we want arrest warrants for 22 people, and already people sketching their defenses. And…it joins in with the opposition to the McCain Amendment and this administration.

The McCain Amendment, which is the amendment prohibiting cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment used by anyone working for the United States, not at all, not allowed to be used. They want to exempt the C.I.A. because the C.I.A. is sitting there with people in black sites all over this world, saying, 'We're going to continue to want to torture people and you're trying to pass an amendment forbidding us from doing it.'

They're getting frightened that they might be prosecuted for this kind of stuff. That's why you are seeing that defense. They're getting frightened of the McCain Amendment. They're sitting there, and they thought they could torture people with impunity, and they have been unable to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: You mention the McCain Amendment. Explain what it is, voted 90-9; and what Vice President Cheney is pressuring McCain to do, and the deal that's being made. As I watched McCain on television yesterday, the Arizona senator, he talked about meeting at least three times with Stephen Hadley, the National Security Adviser, optimistic that they're hammering out a deal. What's going on here?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, the law in the United States as of 9/11 is that you can't torture anyone anywhere in the world, and you can't send anybody to be tortured. It also included a prohibition on what we call lesser torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The administration has taken the position -- under Alberto Gonzales, President's counsel, now Attorney General -- that they can use cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment against non-citizens all over the world. And that includes things that constitute torture -- waterboarding, where you put people under water or drip water onto them to make them think they're drowning, assaults on people, temperature control where you can keep someone in a prison with temperatures up to 100 degrees and down to below zero, or whatever, for long periods of time.

They're doing that. They want to continue to do that. McCain said, "I don't want this anymore. Let's pass an amendment."…90-9 it passed. The President said, 'I'm going to veto that bill, but it's part of the defense authorization bill.' So now they're trying to amend the bill, and they're trying to do it in two different ways.

The initial amendment was: 'Exempt the C.I.A. from this.' What is that saying to us, and the world? Exempt the C.I.A. so it can continue to torture people in black sites. And now the latest little negotiation is if they're not going to exempt the C.I.A. --they want to make it possible that no criminal prosecution can be brought against the C.I.A. for engaging in this kind of conduct.

What is that saying except, 'C.I.A., continue doing what you are doing. Don't worry about it?' That's what they're doing here. They're trying to protect the C.I.A. Now the deal that's really being made with the devil here is not only is there this McCain Amendment prohibiting torture anywhere in the world or in any of these U.S. facilities, but there's another amendment that's in the same bill, and that's the one that's going to take away the right of the Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detentions in U.S. court.

It's called habeas corpus. It's trying to strip that right away from the Guantanamo detainees. And I think the deal with the devil here is that the administration may allow the McCain Amendment into the legislation, the one that forbids torture, if there's also an amendment in the legislation that strips the courts of any right to hear these cases from Guantanamo…

AMY GOODMAN: And McCain is agreeing to this?

MICHAEL RATNER: Apparently McCain is on board on this. A remarkable, remarkable thing.

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