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Ghost prisoners: the truth about ‘extraordinary rendition’

This article is over 15 years, 6 months old
Journalist Stephen Grey describes how the US used ‘extraordinary rendition’ to torture prisoners in other parts of the world. He spoke to Simon Basketter of Socialist Worker
Issue 2026
“Enemy combatants” being transfered to Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001
“Enemy combatants” being transfered to Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001

Since the beginning of the “war on terror” the CIA intelligence agency, on the orders of George Bush’s administration, has used a fleet of executive jets to secretly transport prisoners around the globe.

Some prisoners have gone to the CIA’s secret facilities. Many more have gone to prisons in the Middle East and Central Asia, where repressive governments have tortured them for the US government.

This process is known as “extra­ordinary rendition”.

Since 9/11, the CIA has held and tortured senior Al Qaida captives. Grey writes, “These high-value detainees disappeared into what came to be known as ‘black sites’.

“These were true ghost prisoners, undeclared to the Red Cross, and held, in some cases, for years without any outside communication, even with their families.”

One of the documents Grey has uncovered is a 2002 memo from an FBI special agent based in Guantanamo. He objected to techniques such as “water-boarding,” which was then being used on “senior Al Qaida detainees”.

The agent also denounced a plan to send a detainee “to Jordan, Egypt or another third country to allow those countries to employ interrogation techniques that will enable them to obtain the requisite information”, because this would be a “violation of the US torture statute”.

The agent wrote, “Any person who takes any action in furtherance of implementing such a plan would inculpate [incriminate] all persons who were involved in creating this plan.”

Porter Goss, who later became the head of the CIA, first told Grey about renditions. Stephen Grey told Socialist Worker, “He was then a congressman and head of the House Intelligence Committee.

“I asked him whether they would find a way of capturing Osama bin Laden, and he said, ‘Oh, this is called rendition. Do you know about this?’

“And I said, ‘No, I have not heard of it.’ He said, ‘It’s a way of bringing people to a kind of justice.’

“When the Guantanamo Bay camp was opened up in Cuba, and we saw all those images of those prisoners there, I asked about this.

“Some people who are close to the CIA told me, ‘This is the press release. This is what they want you to see. This is where they’re taking the cameras. But you should know there’s a much wider system of detention, of camps around the world, where people are being taken.’

“A year later, when Maher Arar (see below) was first released, he described so compellingly what happened to him and how he was taken in this Gulfstream jet across the Atlantic from the US to Syria. He described the terrible torture that he faced.

“I was able to find that the movements of these private jets, probably through some errors by the agency and others involved, were quite easy to track around the world.

“One of the main companies that is being used for these renditions is called Aero Contractors. It’s a company based in North Carolina.

“I was wondering whether it was just a normal private company that perhaps had a contract with the CIA. As we dug into it more deeply, we ­discovered it was the CIA.


“I eventually found some pilots who used to work there, who described how they got their job working for Aero Contractors by being interviewed by the agency.

“There were adverts from the CIA saying, we need all these kind of people, including pilots. And they replied to those. The CIA vetted them.

“They got put on what they called ‘the box’, the polygraph lie detector, in a hotel not far from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

“Finally, they were taken to Langley and provided with a series of cover identities, false aviation licenses, false credit cards and false driving licenses.

“One of them said that he was given a form to sign when he joined. This read, ‘I will never claim I’m from the CIA. I’ll never say I’m a CIA employee.’ He signed the form, and they kept all the copies.

“But he knew who he was working for, and they all spent many years working with the agency around the world. It’s a CIA operation.

“The new process of rendition is extraordinary because of the way that it was transformed from a programme that brought people back to justice in the US to a programme that took people to places where they wouldn’t face such justice.

“Rendition itself has always been about snatching people where you wanted in the world. It’s been legal in US law – perhaps not in other countries. But in the 1990s they started using it to send people to other countries.

“The difference that occurred after 9/11 was that it greatly expanded. It was also used to send people to places where there weren’t even any charges against them.

“It was used to take people off the streets who were considered a threat. They were sent to countries where they had no connection at all. We’ve got an Egyptian citizen sent to Libya. We’ve got Ethiopian citizens sent to Morocco.

“It is used as a method of outsourcing interrogation, not simply just to imprison people somewhere else.

“Muhammad Haydar Zammar was one of the key suspects from 9/11. When he was captured in Morocco in December 2001 he was one of the first people in US custody for the attacks.

“You would have thought that he would have been held by the US, brought to trial perhaps, and questioned in New York. But he was sent to Syria. His interrogation was outsourced to Syria.

“I got hold of a German ­intelligence report, which specifically states how the US organised that transfer to Syria, and what’s more, there were trade-offs involved.

“They asked the European Union not to criticise Morocco over human rights because of Morocco’s cooperation in the ‘war on terror’.

“Behind this network of transfers and cooperation, there are trade-offs in the way that we deal with some of the people that we would otherwise criticise over human rights.

“In 2001 and 2002 the US State Department was saying very clearly that people would be tortured in Syria. The Syrian regime was put on the candidate list of the axis of evil.

“This is a country condemned by George Bush for its legacy of torture and oppression. At the same time, they were sending people to Syria.


“This was a covert operation. They have preserved a legal fiction when they’ve sent people to these countries, by asking those countries – sometimes just verbally – to say that they won’t be tortured and will be given fair treatment and be brought to trial.

“I went back to some of the people involved in this rendition programme from the earliest period – some of these people believe that rendition is a good thing and they still defend it.

“But the one thing they’re absolutely clear about is they told the White House and other leaders that sending people to these countries would involve torture.

“One of the US ambassadors to Egypt told me they knew perfectly well these people would be tortured. When Condoleezza Rice says that they had credible promises these people wouldn’t be tortured, she’s not telling the truth.

“People are being disappeared into foreign facilities. Take the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a supposed key Al Qaida operative. He provided under torture some of the false information used as an argument by Colin Powell in his speech before the United Nations to support the war in Iraq.

“That happened after he was rendered to Egypt. He was brought back into US custody, was held in Afghanistan. And now, he’s completely disappeared.

“There are hundreds of people that were captured in Afghanistan that were not sent to Guantanamo. They were sent elsewhere, either held within Afghanistan or sent to other countries.

“When they say the jails are empty, it’s quite frightening, because you think where have they put all these people?”

Trapped in the Salt Pit
– Khalid el-Masri

Khaled el-Masri, a German car salesman, was apparently mistaken for an Al Qaida suspect with a similar name on New Year’s Eve 2003.

Masri, who is a Muslim, was arrested at the border while crossing from Serbia into Macedonia by bus. He has alleged in court papers that Macedonian authorities turned him over to a CIA rendition team.

Then, he said, masked figures stripped him naked, shackled him, and led him onto a Boeing 737 jet.

Flight plans prepared by Jeppesen, one of the rendition flight companies, show that from Skopje, Macedonia, the 737 flew to Baghdad, where it had military clearance to land, and then on to the notorious Salt Pit prison outside the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Masri said he was chained to the floor of the jet and injected with sedatives. After landing, he was put in the boot of a car and driven to a building where he was placed in a dank cell.

He spent the next four months there under interrogation. Masri was released in May 2004.

The US flight crew fared better than their passenger. Documents show that after the 737 delivered Masri to the Afghan prison it flew to the resort island of Majorca, where crew members stayed at a luxury hotel for two nights.

The Palestine Branch
– Exporting torture to Syria

The Syrian prison, known as the Palestine Branch, where some of those kidnapped by the CIA ended up, is according to Grey, “one of the worst interrogation centres in the world.

“The whole story of this rendition programme is that there are only a few people who have emerged to tell their stories, and so many others have disappeared completely.

“There was one man sent there in December 2001. He’s quite a big man. He couldn’t even fit in the cell. And he was held there for over a year in this tiny solitary cell, beaten constantly and never brought to trial.”

In interviews, three former prisoners jailed in the Damascus facility told Grey that Syrian interrogators regularly beat them.

While in solitary confinement they communicated with each other in snatched conversations through the walls, and heard the presence of other prisoners through their screams during torture sessions.

A Syrian government spokesman told Grey that “a number of prisoners had been sent to them”, but denied that any were tortured, and declined to discuss individual cases.

In cell two of the Palestine Branch was Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian telecommunications engineer. Arar had left Syria at age 17 and married a Tunisian fellow student at McGill University in Montreal.

On his way home from a holiday in Tunisia in September 2002, he stopped to change planes at JFK Airport in New York. There, FBI agents arrested him at an immigration control desk, and ordered him deported to his native Syria – even though he was traveling on a Canadian passport.

He was flown on a chartered Gulfstream jet to Jordan and driven into Syria, to the Palestine Branch prison.

After days of beatings, Arar wrote a false statement saying he had been trained at a terror camp in Afghanistan.

“I was ready to accept a ten, 20-year sentence, and say anything, just to get to another place,” he tells Grey in the book.

After nearly a year in captivity, Arar was released and flew home to his family in Canada. A 1,200-page Canadian government report absolved him of any suspicion.

Arar sued the US government, but a New York federal judge dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the case could not be heard for security reasons.

Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program by Stephen Grey is published by C Hurst & Co. It is available for £16.95 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

A rare photograph of an Iraqi captive being interrogated. Blood is splattered on the wall behind the US soldier
A rare photograph of an Iraqi captive being interrogated. Blood is splattered on the wall behind the US soldier
Khalid el-Masri was held and the CIA “black site” known as the Salt Pit outside Kabul
Khalid el-Masri was held and the CIA “black site” known as the Salt Pit outside Kabul

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