(CBS) You may not have heard the term “rendition,” at least not the way the Central Intelligence Agency uses it. But renditions have become one of the most important secret weapons in the war on terror.
In recent years, well over 100 people have disappeared or been “rendered” all around the world. Witnesses tell the same story: masked men in an unmarked jet seize their target, cut off his clothes, put him in a blindfold and jumpsuit, tranquilize him and fly him away.
They’re describing U.S. agents collaring terrorism suspects. Some notorious terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of 9/11, were rendered this way.
But as Correspondent Scott Pelley reports, it’s happening to many others. Some are taken to prisons infamous for torture. And a few may have been rendered by mistake.
One of the covert missions happened in Stockholm, and the details have touched off a national scandal in Sweden.
Two Egyptians living in Sweden, Mohammad Al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza, were arrested by Swedish police and brought to an airport. An executive jet was waiting with a crew of mysterious masked men.
“America security agents just took over,” says Tomas Hammarberg, a former Swedish diplomat who pressed for and got an investigation into how the Egyptians disappeared.
“We know that they were badly treated on the spot, that scissors and knives were used to take off their clothes. And they were shackled. And some tranquilizers were put in the back of them, obviously in order to make them dizzy and fall asleep.”
An airport officer told 60 Minutes she saw the two men hustled to the plane. She didn’t want to be identified, but she had no doubt about where the plane came from: “I know that the aircraft was American registration … because the ‘N’ first, on the registration.”
The so-called “N” number marks an American plane. Swedish records show a Gulfstream G5, N379P was there that night. Within hours, Al-Zery and Agiza, both of whom had been seeking asylum in Sweden, found themselves in an Egyptian prison. Hammarberg says Sweden sent a diplomat to see them weeks later.
What did they tell the diplomat about how they were being treated?
“That they had been treated brutally in general, had been beaten up several times, that they had been threatened,” says Hammarberg. “But probably the worst phase of torture came after that first visit by the ambassador. … They were under electric torture.”
The Egyptians say Agiza is an Islamic militant and they sentenced him to 25 years. But Al-Zery wasn’t charged. After two years in jail, he was sent to his village in Egypt. The authorities are not allowing interviews.
“The option of not doing something is extraordinarily dangerous to the American people,” says Michael Scheuer, who until three months ago was a senior CIA official in the counterterrorist center. Scheuer created the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit and helped set up the rendition program during the Clinton administration.
“Basically, the National Security Council gave us the mission, take down these cells, dismantle them and take people off the streets so they can’t kill Americans,” says Scheuer. “They just didn’t give us anywhere to take the people after we captured.”
So the CIA started taking suspects to Egypt and Jordan. Scheuer says renditions were authorized by Clinton’s National Security Council and officials in Congress – and all understood what it meant to send suspects to those countries.
“They don’t have the same legal system we have. But we know that going into it,” says Scheuer. “And so the idea that we’re gonna suddenly throw our hands up like Claude Raines in ‘Casablanca’ and say, ‘I’m shocked that justice in Egypt isn’t like it is in Milwaukee,’ there’s a certain disingenuousness to that.”
“And one of the things that you know about justice in Egypt is that people get tortured,” says Pelley.
“Well, it can be rough. I have to assume that that’s the case,” says Scheuer.
But doesn’t that make the United States complicit in the torture?
“You’ll have to ask the lawyers,” says Scheuer.
Is it convenient?
“It’s convenient in the sense that it allows American policy makers and American politicians to avoid making hard decisions,” says Scheuer. “Yes. It’s very convenient. It’s finding someone else to do your dirty work.”
The indispensable tool for that work is a small fleet of executive jets authorized to land at all U.S. military bases worldwide.
Scheuer wouldn’t tell 60 Minutes about the planes that are used in these operations – that information is classified. The CIA declined to talk about it, but it turns out the CIA has left plenty of clues out in the open, in the public record.
The tail number of the Gulfstream was first reported by witnesses in Pakistan. In public records, the tail number came back to a company called Premiere Executive Transport Services, with headquarters listed in Dedham, Mass. But Dedham is a dead end. The address is a law office on the second floor of a bank — there’s no airline there.
But there was one thing in the records that did lead somewhere – a second tail number. That number belonged to an unmarked 737. 60 Minutes found the jet in Scotland, apparently refueling. It’s possible to track these plans by their flight plans. Often the information is on the Internet.
Using the Web and aviation sources, 60 Minutes was able to find 600 flights to 40 countries. It appears the number of flights increased greatly in the Bush administration after Sept. 11.
The planes are based in North Carolina. They usually fly to Dulles Airport outside Washington before heading overseas. Major destinations read like a roadmap to the war on terror – 30 trips to Jordan, 19 to Afghanistan, 17 to Morocco, 16 to Iraq. Other stops include Egypt, Libya, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The flight log shows one flight took the 737 to Skopje, Macedonia, to Baghdad and finally Kabul, Afghanistan. 60 Minutes found a man who says he was on that flight.
Khaled el-Masri was born in Kuwait, but he now lives in Germany with his wife and four children. He became a German citizen 10 years ago. He told 60 Minutes he was on vacation in Macedonia last year when Macedonian police, apparently acting on a tip, took him off a bus, held him for three weeks, then took him to the Skopje airport where he believes he was abducted by the CIA.
“They took me to this room, and they hit me all over and they slashed my clothes with sharp objects, maybe knives or scissors,” says el-Masri.
“I also heard photos being taken while this was going on – and they took off the blindfold and I saw that there were a lot of men standing in the room. They were wearing black masks and black gloves.”
El-Masri says he was injected with drugs, and after his flight, he woke up in an American-run prison in Afghanistan. He showed 60 Minutes a prison floor plan he drew from memory. He says other prisoners were from Pakistan, Tanzania, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. El-Masri told 60 Minutes that he was held for five months and interrogated by Americans through an interpreter.
“He yelled at me and he said that, ‘You’re in a country without laws and no one knows where you are. Do you know what that means?’ I said yes,” says el-Masri. “It was very clear to me that he meant I could stay in my cell for 20 years or be buried somewhere, and nobody knows what happened to you.”
He says they were asking him “whether I had contacts with Islamic parties like al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or aid organizations, lots of questions.”
He says he told the Americans he’d never been involved in militant Islam. El-Masri says he wasn’t tortured, but he says he was beaten and kept in solitary confinement. Then, after his five months of questioning, he was simply released.
At that point, did anyone ever tell him that they’d made a mistake? “They told me that they had confused names and that they had cleared it up, but I can’t imagine that,” says el-Masri. “You can clear up switching names in a few minutes.”
He says he was flown out of Afghanistan and dumped on a road in Albania. When he finally made his way back home in Germany, he found that his wife and kids had gone to her family in Lebanon. He called there to explain what happened.
El-Masri says that his wife believed him: “I never lied to her, and my appearance showed that I had been in prison.”
How did he explain what happened to him to his son? “I explained to him what happened to me. And he understood,” says el-Masri. “I said it was the Americans [who did this to me].”
“How do you know if you’re picking up the right people,” Pelley asked Scheuer.
“You do the best you can. It’s not a science,” says Scheuer. “It’s gathering as much information as you can, deciding on the quality of it and then determining the risks the person poses. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake.”
There’s another destination that 60 Minutes noticed frequently in the plane’s flight logs: Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a predominately Muslim country, with a reputation for torture.
Craig Murray is the former British ambassador there. He told 60 Minutes that Uzbek citizens, captured in Afghanistan, were flown back to Taskent on the American plane.
“I know of two instances for certain of prisoners who were brought back in a small jet, and I believe it was happening on a reasonably regular basis,” says Murray.
Murray says the jet was operated by Premiere Executive Airlines.
He says in Uzbekistan, many prisoners are subject to torture techniques straight out of the Middle Ages: “Techniques of drowning and suffocation, rape was used quite commonly, and also immersion of limbs in boiling liquid.”
Murray complained to his superiors that British intelligence was using information gleaned by torture. He was recalled by London four months ago and quit the foreign service.
Is there any reason to believe that the CIA knows that people are being tortured in these jails?
“The CIA definitely knows. I asked my deputy to go and speak to the CIA, and she came back and reported to me that she’d me with the CIA head of station, who told her that ‘Yes, this material probably was obtained under torture, but the CIA didn’t see that a problem.'”
The CIA disputes that. The agency told 60 Minutes that the meeting Murray described didn’t happen. The CIA also says it does not knowingly receive intelligence obtained by torture.
President Bush, in a January interview with the New York Times, said: “Torture is never acceptable.” He added, “nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.”
Scheuer says, in his experience, the United States asks receiving countries to promise that suspects will be treated according to the laws of that country.
“I’m not completely confident that any of the information received was exacted by torture,” says Scheuer.
“In Egypt. Again, I think we have people in the Middle East in the various services we deal with who are extraordinarily experienced in debriefing people,” says Scheuer.
“I personally think that any information gotten through extreme methods of torture would probably be pretty useless because it would be someone telling you what you wanted to hear. The information we have received as a result of these programs has been very useful to the United States.”
“And if some of that useful information is gleaned by torture, that’s OK,” asks Pelley.
“It’s OK with me,” says Scheuer. “I’m responsible for protecting Americans.”
Scheuer says in the Clinton and Bush administrations, and in Congress, details of rendition flights were known to top officials. Now that the missions are coming to light, Scheuer says there is worry in the CIA that field agents will take the fall if any of the missions are later deemed illegal.
Are CIA people feeling vulnerable to that?
“I think from the first day we ever did it there was a certain macabre humor that said sooner or later this sword of Damocles is gonna fall because if something goes wrong, the policy maker and the politicians and the congressional committees aren’t gonna belly up to the bar and say, ‘We authorized this,'” says Scheuer.
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