Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme 
by Stephen Grey.
Hurst, 306 pp., £16.95, November 2006, 1 85065 850 1
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Four years ago, on 28 January 2003, in his State of the Union address to Congress, George Bush referred to the prisoners – more than ten and a half thousand of them – the United States had taken into custody in the course of the war in Afghanistan and the so-called war on terror. Not all were in prison, he said: some had been ‘otherwise dealt with’. ‘Let’s put it this way,’ he continued, ‘they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.’

Many people around the world wondered at the time precisely what the president meant by this thuggish comment; we now have a pretty good idea. The prisoners had disappeared into the CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’, a broad euphemism for a US-devised and executed scheme to kidnap people and outsource their torture to other countries – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere – or to send them to be tortured by US government employees in secret CIA prisons, all without any form of legal process or even an attempt to find out if they really were in any sense ‘enemies’.

Generally speaking, the English-language press has done a rotten job of reporting the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. It has all too often served as a cheerleader for the Bush and Blair governments and failed to take up important subjects when it ought to have done. There is one major exception to this generalisation. We know many details about the business of ‘extraordinary rendition’ thanks to the work of journalists writing for mainstream media. One of these is Stephen Grey, a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Guardian, the Times, the Sunday Times and the New Statesman.

His new book divides fairly neatly into an account of how he and his colleagues uncovered the CIA’s secret flights to torture centres and an assessment of the impact of the American president’s decision to authorise the CIA, his private army, to use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on people captured or put in its custody. On the first subject, Grey is extremely informative, if not always as smart as he seems. On the second, his reluctance to condemn the CIA outright leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Once the CIA kidnaps a person of interest, or another state’s intelligence agency turns one over, standard procedure is for agents to strip and blindfold him (the prisoner is invariably male), insert a tranquilliser into his rectum, dress him in a diaper and jump suit, put him in handcuffs and chains, and fly him to a destination where they know he will be tortured. As Robert Baer, a former CIA operative in the Middle East, has commented, ‘we pick up a suspect or we arrange for one of our partner countries to do it. Then the suspect is placed on civilian transport to a third country where, let’s make no bones about it, they use torture. If you want a good interrogation, you send someone to Jordan. If you want them to be killed, you send them to Egypt or Syria. Either way, the US cannot be blamed as it is not doing the heavy work.’

The first step towards the uncovering of these practices was taken when the fleet of CIA aircraft was identified: a difficult task because the entire rendition programme has been enveloped in the tightest secrecy. Although Grey doesn’t make much of this, primary credit goes to plane spotters, particularly in Europe. I happen to know something about plane spotting because from 1947 until the early 1960s I was a passionate spotter myself. (In 1956 I was one of three founders of the American Aviation Historical Society, an organisation of plane spotters and photographers.) Dana Priest of the Washington Post describes spotters as people who stand ‘at the end of runways with high-powered binoculars and cameras to record the flights of military and private aircraft’, but there is more to spotting than just collecting raw information.

Watching planes closely and recording their serial or registration numbers and squadron markings goes back to the last days of the Blitz, when the first issue of the Aeroplane Spotter appeared, a 12-page periodical intended to improve the quality of aircraft recognition among British civilian air defence volunteers. It included photos and silhouettes of the major aircraft types, both friend and foe, and was the first publication to pay attention to military serial numbers, changes in the registry of civilian aircraft, camouflage schemes, squadron markings and unusual insignia. Such markings are important because, once a database has been compiled, an analyst can use it to infer how many aircraft of a particular type or its variants are in circulation, to deduce the size and composition of squadrons, and to keep track of sales, modifications and losses. The Aeroplane Spotter’s legacy lives on in the activities of today’s spotters, including their websites, which publish not just photos and data but also details of search engines that can trace virtually any aircraft through its serial or registration number.1

Spotters began to expose the CIA’s rendition capers to public scrutiny less than six weeks after 9/11. This was almost inevitable, given that the Agency had chosen to conduct its abductions via the world of civil aviation. The CIA’s operatives seem not to have understood or cared that at all hours of the day and night international airports are simply alive with people – aircrews, flight controllers, ticket clerks, baggage handlers, refuellers, cleaners, police and customs officers, and passengers – who are alert to everything going on around them. Nor was this the only instance of incompetence displayed by the CIA in running its rendition programme.

On 26 October 2001, Masood Anwar, a Pakistani journalist, broke a story in a Karachi newspaper: Pakistani intelligence officers, he reported, had handed over to the US authorities a Yemeni student called Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, who was allegedly wanted in connection with the bombing of the US destroyer Cole in Aden the previous year. The handover occurred early on the morning of 23 October in a remote area of Karachi airport, where airport staff nonetheless observed and reported to Anwar that the captive was hustled aboard a white, twin-engined, turboprop Gulfstream V executive jet with the registration number N379P painted on its tail. It took off at 2.40 a.m. for an unknown destination. As the Washington Post later reported, at 19.54 on 26 October, Anwar’s story was posted on the website. A few minutes later a blogger reported the aircraft’s registered owner: Premier Executive Transport Services of Dedham, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, another reader posted a message on the site: ‘Sounds like a nice generic cover name. Kind of like Air America’ (the CIA’s secret airline, shut down in 1976: it had flown weapons and supplies into, and heroin out of, Laos during the Vietnam War).

Thanks to the work of such bloggers, spotters, journalists and airport workers around the world, many crucial details about the CIA’s rendition fleet have since become public. It has purchased or leased a fleet of between 26 and 33 aircraft, which it has used for various purposes but notoriously for extraordinary renditions. (The 26 comes from Grey, the 33 from Seth Hettena in the San Francisco Chronicle, 24 September 2005.) Most of these planes have been identified and their various N numbers recorded. (N is the international civil aviation code letter for US planes.) The CIA acquired its fleet through classified contracts issued by an obscure military agency called the Navy Engineering Logistics Office, located in Arlington, Virginia. The registered owners of the planes are some ten fake aviation companies with untraceable executives, a good number of whose addresses are post office boxes in northern Virginia (near CIA headquarters at Langley). The listed officers of the companies all have social security numbers – normally issued shortly after birth – that were assigned when they were over fifty, strongly suggesting the creation of new or fake identities.

When the press identifies one of these aircraft and tries to contact the company that allegedly owns it, the aircraft is usually quickly ‘sold’ to another shell company and the registration number changed. Thus the Gulfstream V, N379P, spotted at Karachi in October 2001, was manufactured in 1999 (constructor’s number 581, the only identification on an aircraft that never changes and is always listed on registers) and initially licensed as N581GA. After the CIA acquired it, the number was changed to N379P and its phantom owner became Premier Executive Transport Services. It was engaged in several important renditions between 2001 and 2003. In December 2003, the Shannon Peace Campers, an anti-war group of spotters at Shannon Airport in Ireland, outed it on the internet as the ‘Guantánamo Bay Express’. The same month, N379P became N8068V, although it was still owned by Premier Executive Transport. The Shannon spotters saw it three more times during 2004 in its new livery; then, on 1 December 2004, the plane was ‘sold’ to Bayard Foreign Marketing of Portland, Oregon, another CIA front company, and relicensed as N44982.

The CIA’s known fleet includes two Gulfstreams, a small Cessna, three Lockheed Hercules cargo aircraft, a Gulfstream 1159a, a Lear Jet 35A, an old DC-3, two Boeing 737s and a 53-passenger De Havilland DH8. The De Havilland was photographed by a spotter in Afghanistan. The Agency’s second Gulfstream was registered as N829MG when it was used on 8 October 2002 to fly the Canadian citizen Maher Arar from Kennedy airport to Jordan and on to Syria, where he was held in a coffin-sized cell and tortured for ten months before being told that his arrest was a mistake. After this incident was exposed, the Gulfstream’s registration was changed to N259SK.

The main base for these aircraft is a remote corner of Johnston County airport in Smithfield, North Carolina, where they are serviced by Aero Contractors Ltd, a company founded in 1979 by Jim Rhyne, a legendary CIA officer and a former chief pilot for Air America. The airport is convenient for nearby Fort Bragg, headquarters of the Special Forces; unauthorised persons have no way of seeing into the enclave since the airport has no control tower. The fact that Aero’s aircraft have permission to land at any US military base worldwide is another giveaway of their provenance, since, according to the Chicago Tribune’s John Crewdson, ‘only nine companies’ – including Premier Executive Transport Services – ‘have Pentagon permission to land aircraft at military bases worldwide.’ The US Army’s Aeronautical Services Agency publishes an annual unclassified list of ‘approved civil aircraft landing permits’.2 Those aircraft with permission to land at US military airfields ‘worldwide’ and owned by companies with particularly unrevealing names are almost certainly being used by the CIA or Special Forces.

Many journalists have contributed to this picture of the CIA’s rendition airline. Grey, once he had deduced that a particular plane was operated by the CIA, set out to determine where it had come from and where it was going: its ‘flight plan’. He gives the impression that this information was hard to come by and that his discovery depended on a key clandestine informer he calls his own Deep Throat, with whom he communicated via unlisted fax numbers. But all he really needed was someone knowledgeable about the kinds of data that come into an airport’s control tower and a sense of how to decipher the online flight plans which every civil aircraft files before, during and after its flight. Grey realised that ‘Osama bin Laden in his Afghan cave (if equipped with an internet connection) could have watched the four flights of 11 September as they veered off their normal course and began heading towards the World Trade Center’ (only two airliners of course, crashed into New York’s Twin Towers).

What Grey also learned is that flight plans report the point of departure and the plane’s destination using the four-letter codes of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation, rather than the less reliable three-letter codes of the International Air Transport Association, some of which are very familiar to the flying public – LHR (Heathrow), LAX (Los Angeles), JFK. Thus, a CIA flight from Kabul to Cairo would be recorded as OAKB (not KBL) to HECA (not CAI ). With that small bit of information the entire CIA operation became an open book, since all these codes are on the internet.

Grey did, however, uncover one delicious detail that seems not to have been on the internet and that I hadn’t known. For the sake of privacy, the owner of an aircraft filing a flight plan online can ask the website manager to block publication of his or her plane’s movements for a particular flight, a provision that would permit, say, a CEO taking his secretary in the corporate jet for a skiing weekend in Gstaad to avoid being asked to explain it to his wife or board of directors. ‘Under a voluntary code,’ Grey notes, ‘none of the aviation websites would then publish’ the data. Grey’s astonishing discovery is that the CIA repeatedly failed to use this facility to keep its operations secure.

Other journalists uncovered equally damaging facts. Dana Priest and her colleagues at the Washington Post were the first to publish evidence that the CIA had secretly established torture prisons in Eastern Europe, most probably in Poland and Romania, using Szymany Airport for the Polish renditions. Jane Mayer of the New Yorker uncovered through on-the-record interviews much of the history of the rendition programme, particularly Michael Scheuer’s 1995 negotiation of a rendition and torture agreement with Egypt. (At the time, Scheuer was in charge of the Bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.) Margot Williams of the New York Times studied reports filed by the companies that allegedly owned the CIA’s fleet of aircraft. These revealed that at least half a dozen corporations all had the same, unidentifiable executives. ‘Examining the corporate records of the aviation empire, we were stunned to see just how badly they were put together,’ Grey notes. ‘The CIA had left behind a paper trail for us to follow. Each different company was connected to another.’ Many other reporters – Swedes, Italians, Americans and British – also did an extraordinary job of penetrating the CIA’s layers of secrecy, disinformation and euphemism to bring to public attention the indefensible activities of the US government and its European collaborators.

More important than any of this is what the rendition programme actually involves: the gruesome torture of helpless captives; the tearing apart of families, some with official refugee status in Western European cities, as husbands simply disappeared and wives and children were left to cope; and the failure of the US government to apologise or pay compensation for egregious mistakes, indifferent as it has been to the suffering caused.

Grey has spent a lot of time investigating these matters. He gives detailed accounts of such distasteful episodes as the Foreign Office’s treatment of the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who exposed the president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov’s orders that Uzbeks and others delivered to Tashkent by the Americans should be boiled alive. London then charged the ambassador with ‘receiving sexual favours in his office’ from Tashkent ‘dolly-birds’, drunkenness at work and some ten other offences, each of which it withdrew when Murray refused to step down. After months of harassment, he eventually resigned, for medical reasons, and the Foreign Office paid him £300,000 in ‘compassionate’ compensation. ‘In some ways,’ Grey writes, ‘there had always been a simple choice: to work with Karimov and to accept or at least try to suffer his abuses, or to condemn him and lose all co-operation. Craig Murray had chosen to force not only his government but the hand of the United States.’ In doing so, ‘he had exposed to the world a very uncomfortable alliance – between a superpower that proclaimed human rights and an unreformed Communist who boiled his prisoners alive.’

Grey was hesitant at the beginning. Arriving in New York with the remains of the Twin Towers still smouldering, he writes: ‘After what was being called the largest terrorist crime in history, and as intelligence chiefs struggled to assess whether further large-scale attacks were planned, pressure increased for employing “any means necessary”. I was affected with this enthusiasm too – shocked by events, I also wondered if I had become too squeamish.’ He immediately adds: ‘I had not yet contemplated what that kind of attitude would mean.’ Nonetheless, some five years on, he believes that ‘European policy-makers need to respond to the challenges that terrorism poses. Instead of protesting about the existence of CIA detention centres in Europe, they should welcome them, even invite their creation. But they should insist at the same time that those centres should be acknowledged publicly, be subject to outside inspection and exist under the rule of law.’

Roughly 775 people have passed through Guantánamo since it was opened in January 2002, and 430 are still there. Not one of these prisoners has seen a judge. Grey quotes an academic analyst: ‘Only 5 per cent of the detainees were captured by United States forces. Eighty-six per cent were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to United States custody.’ Those involved in rendition, Grey explains, persistently argue that their prisoners ‘presented a “clear and present” danger to Western interests’. During the Cold War, Grey points out, ‘the outsourcing of the CIA’s difficult jobs had been just a matter of routine.’ Besides, ‘the Romans and the British used to outsource their imperial tasks.’

There is no evidence, however, that illegal kidnappings have contributed anything to the security of the US. According to the retired FBI agent Dan Coleman, who blew the whistle on the CIA’s use of torture at Guantánamo, the CIA ‘loved that these guys would just disappear off the books, and never be heard of again. They were proud of it.’ The CIA added the term ‘extraordinary’ to indicate that this was not just the capture of a fugitive abroad and the rendering of him or her to US authorities to stand trial, but that the target would disappear into the netherworld of some foreign prison: probably an idea it learned from colleagues in Chile and Argentina when these were American-backed military dictatorships, and from its work with Central American death squads during the Reagan administration.

In the course of his research, Grey interviewed numerous CIA pilots, operational agents, chiefs who planned missions, and White House officials who authorised renditions. ‘These men and women told methat the rendition programme was vital – the “most important and most effective weapon that has been used in the war on terror”, according to one senior officer.’ But effective for what? What is rendition’s purpose – or its purposes? According to Grey’s informants,

most of those involved in the programme claimed to me that torture was never the purpose of renditions. I believed them. Yet, almost to a man, they admitted that, when transferring prisoners to jails across the world, the CIA knew that the torture of these men was inevitable. Contrary to what was claimed later, the White House was fully informed. Those in charge knew the prisoner would be tortured.

One of the officials who talked most candidly to Grey on the record was Edward Walker Jr, the American ambassador to Egypt from 1994 to 1997. ‘I put this question to Ambassador Walker: “When Condoleezza Rice and the president now stand in front of people and say we don’t send people to countries where they torture, are they telling the truth?” “No, they’re not telling the truth,” he replied.’ An unnamed former CIA official told Grey: ‘Coming out and saying, “We don’t do torture,” is as bad as President Clinton saying: “I didn’t have sex with that woman.” It’s in the same league. It’s a bare-faced lie.’

If the CIA does not intend to engage in proxy interrogations under torture, why does it allow it? Grey’s sources suggest that renditions ‘were principally about a disappearance, not about interrogation’. They are a tactic to disrupt terrorist organisations before they have a chance to act. Michael Scheuer comments: ‘Getting anyone off the street who you’re confident has been involved or is planning to be involved in operations … is a worthwhile activity.’ The problem, of course, is that the CIA has no legal procedures for determining ‘confidence of involvement’ and appears to send people to be tortured for no other reason than that they are Muslim – as Maher Arar of Canada and Khaled el-Masri of Germany know full well. In December 2001, when he was still head of the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee before Bush named him director of Central Intelligence, Porter Goss told Grey: ‘There is a polite way to take people out of action and bring them to some type of justice. It’s generally referred to as a rendition.’ That may be what they call it in Washington, but there are no instances of ‘polite’ rendition.

I believe the reason CIA veterans always claim that torture never crossed their minds when they politely picked people up is a genuine fear of being charged under the Federal Anti-Torture Statute (18 USC § 2340-2340A). Despite all of Bush’s legal sophistry in claiming that he cannot be restrained in any way in his role as commander-in-chief, this is one law that unquestionably applies to all American officials, in the CIA or any other agency. It specifically prohibits the use of torture ‘upon another person within his custody or physical control’ and it carries the death penalty if the torture victim dies (which rendition victims often do). CIA agents are terrified of being ordered to commit a capital crime and then being hung out to dry by their political superiors.

There is one further reason for the way the US behaves that Grey doesn’t mention. So far, all the official investigations into 9/11, torture at Abu Ghraib and the leadership of the CIA have a single major flaw: the investigations were allowed to proceed only on the understanding that they would not inquire into the roles of the president and the vice president. Grey does not provide any political context for his investigations. I believe that rendition, torture and the denial of a suspect’s legal protections are part of the neocon programme to proclaim the United States a new Rome, an irresistible superpower, essentially beyond good and evil. Among the few bits of good political news in recent years is that the US overreached itself and a backlash against its hubris is underway.

Ghost Plane is a pioneering study of what is by definition an almost impossible subject to research. Grey’s individual case studies – Maher Arar, Khaled el-Masri, two Egyptians formerly seeking asylum in Sweden, and Abu Omar, an Egyptian imam who was living in Milan as a protected political exile – are particularly good.3 In the case of the rendition of Abu Omar to Cairo on 17 February 2003, the CIA disgraced itself, even on its own terms, by bungling all aspects of the operation. The Italian government is today seeking indictments against 25 CIA officers, including the Milan and Rome station chiefs, plus a US air force colonel, for serious felonies committed on Italian soil.

In the course of Abu Omar’s rendition, some two dozen CIA men and women lived at US taxpayers’ expense at deluxe hotels such as Milan’s Principe di Savoia and ate in four-star restaurants, followed by vacations in Venice and on the Tuscan coast, running up bills of $144,984 for accommodation alone. They became known in the trade as ‘the spies who came in from the hot tub’. Former CIA officials have condemned them for their incompetence. Perhaps, as Grey suggests, ‘maintaining cover as rich businessmen, they had chosen nothing but the best in their accommodation.’ Yeah.

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