Otherwise Dealt With

Chalmers Johnson

  • Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme by Stephen Grey
    Hurst, 306 pp, £16.95, November 2006, ISBN 1 85065 850 1

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.

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[1] For example, fboweb.com/fb40/default.aspx

[2] www.usaasa.belvoir.army.mil/calp/calpdec05.htm

[3] The case of Abu Omar will be discussed by John Foot in a future issue.