Torture Flights: The Shocking Facts

By Gordon Thomas in Canada Free press

(To prepare this exclusive report, the award-winning intelligence expert GORDON THOMAS spoke to a range of sources in Britain, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the United States.)

Despite the Bush administration’s insistence it neither participates nor condones ‘ “in any form” ‘ torture, the CIA continues to fly high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects to interrogation centres which are beyond US jurisdiction ‘ and where torture is routine.

Investigations by the European Union and human rights activists like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have done nothing to end the secret flights that weekly cross the globe with their human cargoes destined for torture chambers.

What happens on some of the flights has been graphically described by a senior British intelligence officer who spoke under a guarantee of anonymity.

“I have personal knowledge of two flights on which the prisoners were shackled in their seats and drugged for the flight. CIA officers were on board to conduct preliminary interrogations. The heavy duty stuff is left until after landing”.

Confirmation of the drugging and hooding has come from Kuwait-born Khaled al-Masari, who had become a German citizen. There is no record of him having any connection with a terrorist organisation.

In June 2003, he was on holiday in Macedonia, touring the country by bus. One day he was taken off a bus and held in the local jail in Skopje for three weeks. No interrogation took place. Requests to see the German consul were ignored. So were requests to see a lawyer. One night he was driven to Skopje’s international airport. In a sworn affidavit he says this is what happened next.

“Two men came in. They spoke with American accents. They were in civilian clothes. With them were two uniformed police officers. They held me down and I was injected. In moments I felt dizzy. A hood was placed over my head. I was then put on an aircraft. On the flight I was told I was going to a special place and no one would find me. After a long flight I was driven to a prison still hooded. I found myself among prisoners from Pakistan, Tanzania, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. I was there for five months, regularly beaten and told to confess I was a terrorist. Then one day I was dragged from my cell, put inside a closed truck and driven to a plane. After the flight, I was taken off. An American told me that a mistake had been made: I was not a terrorist. He put me in a car with more Americans. They drove for a while, stopped the car, told me to get out and drove off. I found out I was in Albania. I made my way back to Germany.”

He reported his story to the police in Frankfurt. The details were passed on to the Kriminalamt, the country’s equivalent of the FBI. Al-Masari was interviewed by two agents. Satisfied, they informed the Bundesamtes Fur Fefassungsschuts, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. It contacted the CIA station chief in Berlin. He sent a report to Langley. He was told, according to a German police file on the case, there was “a mistake, a confusion of names”. The German interior minister, Otto Schily, on a visit to Washington raised the matter with Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. She offered him the same response. Officially the matter ended. Al-Masari’s attempts to obtain compensation have so far failed and he has been told there is no point in pursuing it.

Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, confirmed that Al-Masari had undergone “extraordinary rendition”. The flights are run by the highly secret CIA Counter Terrorist Intelligence Centre, CTIC, at Langley. Originally created in the mid-90s by the Clinton Administration, it had rapidly expanded after the 9/11 attacks to counter the threat of Islamic terrorism and overcome CIA difficulties in obtaining convictions against terrorists. Further expansion followed the end of the war with Iraq when a number of meetings took place in London and Washington, chaired by both country’s intelligence chiefs, to decide how to best deal with the large number of captured suspected terrorists.

Out of those meetings came the creation of a purpose-built interrogation centre in the US base at Bagram in the charge of forty CTIC men and women, including doctors trained in the use of psychotropic drugs. Many were familiar with the use of mind-bending chemicals which had been developed for the notorious CIA MK-ULTRA programme in the 1960s. Bagram quickly became crowded with captured Taliban and foreign mercenaries. In the first weeks, two died during interrogation and several were left permanently physically incapacitated.

The centre was soon overflowing with prisoners. At a meeting in London in April 2002 chaired by John Scarlett ? now head of MI6 ? at the offices of the Joint Intelligence Committee and attended by CTIC officers, it was decided Bagram was not able to operate efficiently under such conditions. Even when detainees were transferred on the so-called Guantanamo Express to Cuba, the freight car cells at Bagram quickly filled up with new prisoners.

Could another site ? possibly several ? be found? Scarlett had served in Moscow as an MI6 officer and recalled the existence of interrogation centres throughout the Soviet Union: he said the harshest had been those run by the KGB in Uzbekistan, Moldova and Poland. They could well serve CTIC’s purpose. Scarlett knew two senior officers of Polish military intelligence. They were invited to London to meet senior members of MI6 who had worked in Eastern Europe. CIA chief, George Tenet, now in the dying months of his tenure, sent several senior officials to attend. The Poles confirmed the KGB interrogation centres remained intact and were used by local security services to question criminals.

CTIC already had its own aircraft and its senior officer at the meeting said there would be no problem in arranging overflying and refuelling rights in countries like Britain, Germany and Spain.

The Polish officers identified airfields within the old Warsaw Pact that could be used as stopovers; the air base at Tazar in south-central Hungary, the Szczytno-Szymany base in Poland and the Markuleshti airfield in Moldova. During the Cold War they had all been used for secret operations by Warsaw Pact Special Forces. Interrogations had also been conducted there by the KGB.

The operational plans sufficiently advanced, it was time for them to be politically rubber-stamped. Scarlett informed prime minister Tony Blair and Tenet briefed President Bush. Both quickly endorsed them.

Recognising that Poland would have an important role to play as the refuelling point for all flights going to Uzbekistan ? selected by CTIC to be the prime interrogation centre for the terrorists ? it was essential to get the support of Leszek Miller, the country’s soon to be ousted prime minister who had staunchly supported the war on Iraq. He immediately agreed to allow the Szczytno-Szymany base to be used as CTIC’s prime refuelling point in Eastern Europe.

The first flight began in May 2002. A Gulfstream V executive jet, registration N379P, landed at Northolt airport near London. It had a long history of being a staging post for CIA and MI6 officers en route to secret missions in Europe during the Cold War. Under what the Ministry of Defence later called “standing regulations”, the only details listed of the Gulfstream flight were the names of the pilot and the aircraft owner. No record was made of any passengers on board.

On a sunny Spring day the Gulfstream V and its unrecorded passengers flew from Northolt to the Szczytno-Szymany base in northern Poland still blanketed by winter snow. After refuelling, the aircraft flew on to Uzbekistan. Soon the executive jet was on a regular run, picking up detainees in Jakarta in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bagram. One was the Yemeni microbiologist Jamil Qasim Seed Mohammed, wanted by CTIC “in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole while the warship was at anchor off Aden”. He was flown to Uzbekistan and his fate remains unknown. Another passenger was Muhammed Saad Madni, an Egyptian suspect who had worked with the British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. He was “rendered” from Jakarta to Egypt. His fate also remains unknown.

By December 2005, CTIC employed over 1,000 people: field officers, analysts, translators and liaison officers with foreign intelligence services. Their closest relationship remained with Mossad: its own agents in Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan provided updates of the movements of terrorist suspects on the CTIC list. The decision as to who would be rendered was made by CTIC in conjunction with CIA director, Porter Goss. He was still doing so the day before he suddenly resigned in May 2006 ? a victim of political manoeuvring in Washington.

By then “rendition” had been fine-tuned. In May, 2006, CTIC officers were stationed in twenty-two countries around the globe to handle the arrests and transportation of suspects. They were usually picked up by the local security service and held in solitary confinement until they could be flown out to a designated “black site” ? the CTIC in-house description of the interrogation centres. The decision as to which site a suspect should be sent was made by the senior CTIC officer on the spot.

“If a strong psychological interrogation with some physical force is required, a detainee is flown to Jordan. If a suspect is to be interrogated in between periods of strong physical force, he is sent to Egypt. For the most severe of torture for information, he is sent to Uzbekistan where he is killed after he can reveal no more”, a senior Mossad officer said.

Craig Murray, when British ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote in a memo to Jack Straw, Britain’s Foreign Secretary in November 2004: “The CIA chief in this country acknowledged to me that torture of those rendered includes the boiling in vats of prisoners”. Murray was relieved of his post, labelled as “mentally unstable” and finally dismissed from the diplomatic service. By December 2005, he had become one of the first to publicly reveal some of the details of the rendition process. As a result he said he was threatened by Britain’s security services.

But the flights continued with CTIC’s aircraft criss-crossing the world. The Gulfstream V had been joined by a C-130 Hercules, a Casa turboprop, a Gulfstream and a Boeing-737. All were painted white and bore no markings. Some were also leased from the Premier Executive Transport Service in Massachusetts. When contacted, the company declined to discuss the planes or the purpose for which they are used. A glimpse of what happened on board the aircraft came from two intelligence sources ? one in London, the other in Washington.

“The prisoners are shackled to their seats and are gagged and often drugged during their flights. CTIC officers travel with them to their interrogation country. The flight manifests contain no details of who they are. At a refuelling stop, the aircraft window blinds are drawn. No local official is allowed on board. Fuel is paid for by a credit card the pilot carries. It is billed to CTIC”, said the London source.

The Washington source added: “In countries like Uzbekistan, Soviet-trained interrogators carry out the torturing. They have a list of information targets to obtain. The answers are passed to the resident CTIC officer. He sends them to Washington”.

From there the information is distributed within the US intelligence community and sent to selected foreign intelligence services, including Mossad. In Tel Aviv it is carefully tested against other material gathered by the service’s own network of agents and informers.

By May, 2006, the “torture flights” had flown scores of suspects to the secret “black sites” far beyond the public eye and the US justice system. Swiss Intelligence ? a small but well respected spying organisation ? intercepted a fax sent by Ahmed Abdul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, to its London embassy’s intelligence chief. The minister wanted to know the fate of twenty-three detainees “rendered” from Afghanistan to a “black site” on Romania’s Black Sea coast. Swiss Intelligence, whose relationship with Mossad is close, sent a copy of the fax to Tel Aviv where the authenticity of the fax was quickly established. In it the minister had referred to “similar interrogation centres in Ukraine, Kosovo, Macedonia and in Bulgaria”.

By May, 2006, the “torture flights” (the description was coined by Amnesty International) had made over 50 flights in and out of Britain and close to 200 through German air space. Other flights had passed through Spanish airports and Shannon, Ireland’s international airport. The logs kept by air traffic controllers in those countries listed over 300 flights of CTIC aircraft.

In Tel Aviv senior members of Mossad have begun to view “rendition” as an embarrassing sideshow “which is obstructing the CIA’s real work and is unable to provide reliable intelligence”.

A senior member of director-general Meir Dagan’s staff said: “The danger with the torture flights is that they provide invaluable propaganda for our enemies. Where does harsh interrogation cross the borderline into torture? We are not averse to harsh questioning, but we draw the line at methods that allow prisoners to be severely beaten, sexually assaulted and given repeated electric shocks and threats to their families. It is not that we are squeamish, but practical. That kind of interrogation does not produce credible intelligence”.

But the torture flights have continued . There are no plans to stop them. An intelligence source in Washington said: “They will continue as long as Bush’s war on terrorism”.