The Torture-Go-Round

By LILA RAJIVA in Counter Punch

The CIA’s Rendition Flights to Secret Prisons

Dana Priest’s recent Washington Post article, “Anatomy of a CIA ‘rendition’ gone wrong”(1) only confirms what those who have watched the torture scandal closely already know. Abu Ghraib was no anomaly but the most visible tip of a widespread but clandestine policy. Priest reveals details about a case in which the CIA used German, Macedonian, Albanian and Afghan authorities and European air space and terminals to “render” a German citizen snatched up abroad for interrogation and torture, without any material cause.

Here’s the case that’s now causing a furor in Europe:

Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen resident in Ulm, Germany, went on a trip to Macedonia, was arrested by local authorities on New Year’s Eve, 2003 and held for over 3 weeks in a motel. Then, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, stripped by masked men, drugged, diapered and flown to Afghanistan, on the basis of a “hunch” by a counter-terrorist chief in the CIA. The hunch was no more than the fact that Masri’s name resembled that of an associate of one of the 9-11 hijackers

Masri was imprisoned for five months by Afghans and possibly Americans and claims he was tortured. A bus driver confirms that Masri was snatched up by border guards on the date he alleges; forensic analysis of his hair shows malnutrition during the time he claims he was imprisoned; flight logs confirm that a CIA front company flew a plane out of Macedonia on the day he says he was abducted.

Back in the US, Masri’s passport and story held up and in May 2004, around the time when the Abu Ghraib scandal first burst into public view in America, the White House sent U.S. ambassador in Germany, Daniel R. Coats, on a special mission to German Interior Minister Schily, an ardent Bush supporter, to inform him of the error and tell him to keep the details secret should Masri go public.

Later in May, Masri claims he was visited in prison by a man he says was German, who told him that he was going to be released without documents that might confirm his story because the Americans would never admit to a mistake. He was released, flown out to Albania – Macedonia wouldn’t admit him – and dumped onto a narrow country road at dusk. From there he was escorted to the international airport at Tirana by armed men and rejoined his family in Lebanon where they’d gone.

Masri’s attorneys say they intend to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts this week. Neither the CIA nor the German ministry which was told about the case, is talking.

Masri’s story is given support by other news pouring in from all over Europe in the last week:

December 1: The British Guardian reports that over 300 CIA flights have landed at European airports and that CIA planes visited Germany and Britain over 200 times, if chartered flights are included. According to the NY Times, there were 94 flights in Germany, 76 in Britain, 33 in Ireland, 16 in Portugal, 15 in Spain and Czechoslovakia each and two chartered flights that made stopovers in France. French officials say they had no knowledge of the clandestine flights. If so, the flights certainly violated French sovereignty.(2)

December 2: Le Figaro in France adds that the first flight was made on March 31, 2002 by a Lear jet that stopped in Brest en route from Iceland to Turkey, via Rome. The crew was reportedly alone. The second flight, which stopped over near Paris on July 20, 2005, from Norway, was a Gulfstream III jet that landed six times at Guantanamo.(3)

December 3: Berliner Zeitung in Germany reports that CIA aircraft used European airports minimally 15 times this past year and says that America’s Ramstein Air Base (Germany) was a hub for the flights between 2002 and 2004. (4)

December 4: The Council of Europe, the foremost human rights watchdog in Europe, headed by Swiss senator Dick Marty and using satellite imagery, makes its first closed door report in Paris on “black sites” in eastern Europe and the flights in Europe. Marty also cites the illegal abduction in February 2003 of accused terrorist and Egyptian cleric Abu Omar from Milan to Germany and then Egypt, where he was reportedly tortured. (5)

Human Rights Watch identifies the Kogalniceanu military airfield in Romania and Poland’s Szczytno-Szymany airport as probable sites based on flight logs of the CIA aircraft between 2001 to 2004. Other airports possibly used were Palma de Majorca in Spain’s Balearic Islands, Larnaca in Cyprus, and Shannon in Ireland. The CIA flight logs were analyzed by Mark Galasco, a senior military analyst with the organization who was formerly a civilian intelligence office with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Not someone who can be easily dismissed as anti-American. (6)

Meanwhile, Poland and Romania as well as another ten nations deny having CIA facilities in their territory while Austria and Denmark are investigating US violations of their air space. There are over six investigations into flights in various countries.

To all this the White House has tried outright denial. Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, told Fox News Sunday on December 4,

“… we comply with U.S. law. We respect the sovereignty of the countries with which we deal. And we do not move people around the world so that they can be tortured.”

But when asked on CNN’s “Late Edition” specifically if the U.S. operates secret prisons in Europe, Hadley side-stepped a clear-cut denial, preferring to fudge, “there is a lot of cooperation at a variety of levels on the war on terror.”

Hadley is lying on all three counts he cites –

1. As the flight logs and investigative reports document, the US is moving people around the world to be tortured.

2. Since all 25 member states have signed the European Convention on Human Rights, and the International Convention Against Torture, secret torture cells would indeed be a violation of the laws of foreign countries. If officials in this country did not know about these flights, as seems to be the case, then the US did indeed violate their national sovereignty.

3. The United Nations Convention Against Torture was also ratified by the U.S in 1994, and it requires “substantial grounds for believing” that a detainee will be tortured abroad.

Since Syria, Jordan, Egypt and many of the other countries where suspects have been rendered have turned up all too frequently as violators in human rights monitoring and have been cited by the State Department itself, the US cannot plausibly argue as it has, that it does not have “substantial grounds for believing” rendered suspects would be tortured there. Its own officials are on record saying just the opposite. Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA’s former counterterrorism director, told Newsday about an al-Qaeda suspect taken to Egypt, “They promptly tore his fingernails out and he started to tell things.” (February 6, 2003). Former CIA agent Bob Baer told The New Statesman, “If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt,”

Since CIA officials knew the fate in store of those rendered, the US is in utter

violation of international laws on torture which are binding on it.

It’s not necessary anymore to hedge discussion of the program with words like “alleged,” for Masri is only the latest in a long line of renditions without cause/due process of any kind: Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen, seized by a CIA team in Pakistan in October 2001, sent to Egypt, burned, electrocuted and beaten till he bled in his sleep from his nose, mouth, and ears, was dumped in Guantanamo and then released without being charged; Mohamedou Oulad Slahi, a Mauritanian and former Canada resident, taken by the CIA to Jordan for interrogation for 8 months, was sent to Guantanamo and released; Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, an Egyptian imprisoned by Indonesia authorities in January 2002, flown to Egypt for interrogation, was returned to the CIA four months later, held for 13 months in Afghanistan, then sent to Guantanamo and later released; Maher Arar a naturalized Canadian citizen, kidnapped in New York in September 2002, was taken to Syria, held in a coffin and tortured with metal whips. He proved to have no ties to terrorism and was released.

Masri is telling the truth. There is just too much testimony from detainees that makes substantially the same charges, too many CIA admissions and leaks, too many eye-witness reports, the meticulously analyzed flight logs and even supporting medical evidence.

The Masri case is without any doubt an illegal operation involving authorities in at least five countries – Macedonia, Afghanistan, Germany, Albania, and the U.S.

Let me spell that out. In pursuit of the global war on terror, the U.S. government, apparently conspiring with foreign intelligence, has snatched a citizen of one country off the streets of another for no credible reason whatsoever, violating the sovereignty of several foreign countries in the process. It has then sent him to still another foreign country for torture for several months. And, having found itself mistaken, it has confiscated/withheld the documents necessary for the victim to substantiate a legal claim against the US government. There was no formal charge, there was no notification of the family, there were no witnesses called, there was no lawyer provided, there was no explanation or restitution offered.

Again, note. The CIA held these prisoners in contravention of the laws even of the torturing countries. Even Egypt, Syria or Jordan have legal systems – however harsh – that would have necessitated charges and a legal defense. But as ex-FBI agent Dan Coleman has stated, “We’re taking people, and keeping them in our own custody [my emphasis] in third countries. That’s an enormous problem….There was a process there [in Egypt],” Coleman says. “But what’s our process? We have no method over there other than our laws”and we’ve decided to ignore them. What are we now, the Huns? If you don’t talk to us, we’ll kill you?” (7)

What is also clamoring to be asked is if the black sites allegedly in Eastern Europe – and according to the Post article, also in Thailand – are really all that there are to the story?

Given the extraordinary sensitivity of the whole program, what are the chances that CIA leaks tell the whole story? What about Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, and many other countries partnered with the US in the global war on terror who have dismal human rights records.

Uzbekistan has recently been in the news about just that. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador there, told 60 Minutes that Uzbek citizens, captured in Afghanistan, were flown back to Tashkent on an American plane operating on a regular basis. Uzbeki torture techniques include drowning, suffocation, rape, and immersion in boiling liquid. Murray calls these techniques “medieval” but there is not one that has not been used by the US, not only in the war on terror” but within US prisons. When Murray complained that British intelligence was using information elicited by torture, he was recalled and quit the foreign service.(8)

Indonesia is another strong candidate to have black sites, since the Asian tsunami last year provided the perfect justification and cover for US spy satellites and military to enter the area. Just this past November 23, the Bush administration announced it will lift a six-year arms embargo and resume full relations with the Indonesian military providing aid to “support US and Indonesian security objectives, including counterterrorism, [my emphasis] maritime security and disaster relief.” (9)

And what about Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean? The US has vehemently denied a black site there, but what credibility do such denials have? Could the focus on Eastern Europe turn out to be an elaborate feint or a secondary story, as so much else in the uncovering of this story?

Masri claims he was not tortured but beaten. How many unknown victims permanently “disappeared”?

Finally, let’s not forget that the Masri case was known at the highest level and concealed with the knowledge of then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. And for good reason. At a time when the administration was frantically dismissing Abu Ghraib as a case of a “few rotten apples,” Masri’s case shows it for what it really was – a reckless policy put in place by the administration in violation of US and international laws.

Lila Rajiva is a free-lance journalist and author of “The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American media,” (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at: [email protected]


1. Dana Priest, “Anatomy of a CIA rendition gone wrong,” Washington Post, December 4, 2005. Also, Dana Priest, “CIA Hold Terror Suspects in Secret Sites,” Washington Post, November 2, 2005.

2. “Twist to terror suspects row as logs show 80 CIA planes visited UK,” Guardian, UK, December 1, 2005 and “Reports of Secret U.S. Prisons in Europe Draw Ire and Otherwise Red Faces,” Ian Fisher, NY Times, December 1, 2005.

3. “Paper: CIA flights made stopovers in France,” AP, December 2, 2005.

4. “CIA’s secret detainee flights concern Germany,” AP November 26, 2005.

5. “Many Hints of CIA prison flights,” AP, November 22, 2005.

6. “EU to probe reports of secret CIA prisons,” AP, November 3, 2005

7. “Outsourcing Torture,” Jane Meyer, New Yorker, February 7/14, 2005.

8. “CIA Flying Suspects To Torture?” CBS Sixty Minutes, March 6, 2005.