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Air America Revisited


Wednesday, Dec. 06, 2006

Stephen Grey's new book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, is part exposé, part analytic essay, and part detective story. By speaking to dozens of sources -- including former and current CIA operatives, prosecutors, pilots, diplomats, lawyers, journalists, plane-spotters and prisoners -- and by poring over countless flight records, Justice Department memos, and other documents, Grey has managed to piece together a vivid history of the CIA's secret program of interrogation, detention and torture.

The book offers a complex yet gripping account of how the Bush Administration chose to deal with suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Cofer Black, the CIA's head of counterterrorism, put the matter succinctly: "After September 11, the gloves came off." Grey's narrative fills in some of the missing detail, although he is careful to acknowledge that there is still much about the CIA's detainee operations that remains hidden.

Grey reports that he was first alerted to the CIA program by Porter Goss, at that time a Member of Congress (and later, the head of the CIA). In December 2001, then-Representative Goss told Grey about the CIA's use of a technique called "rendition," which Goss described as "a polite way to take people out of action and bring them to some type of justice."

Grey's book, published nearly five years later, shows that the program is far from polite and has little to do with justice. Suspects are snatched up, flown abroad, and tossed into torture chambers. Some are probably guilty of serious crimes; others are not. Neither the innocent nor the guilty are given any fair opportunity to plead their case.

Tracing the Global Pattern

The book opens with a few chilling histories of suspects whose interrogation was "outsourced," via the rendition program, to countries where torture is a routine practice. Interrogators in Syria beat dual Canadian-Syrian citizen Maher Arar with electric cables. Morocco torturers made cuts in the penis of Ethiopian national Binyam Mohamed while he screamed.

Both of these men, and many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of others, were delivered to their torturers via CIA transport. And it was the CIA's use of private executive jets to ferry prisoners around the world that turned out to be the key to Grey's effort to trace the global pattern of renditions.

Bizarrely, given the secrecy of the rendition program, the CIA appeared to have taken few real steps to cover up its covert air operations. Perhaps the reason was as simple as that proffered by a former CIA operative: "You can't really hide a fleet of planes." Using information garnered from plane spotters (people who obsessively note comings and goings at airports), aviation databases, and a well-placed confidential source, Grey and others linked specific flightlogs to a series of detainee renditions.

With flight after CIA flight exposed - to Egypt, Uzbekistan, Libya and Guantanamo, among others -- the overall pattern became clear. "Concealed behind the movement of innocent-looking civilian jets, the flight data showed the agency was working with some of the most repressive countries of the world."

Redefining Torture

The hidden world that Grey describes in Ghost Plane displays sheer contempt for fundamental legal norms. While CIA operatives and Administration officials were clearly concerned about the prohibitions against torture and forced disappearance, this concern was evidenced only in their repeated efforts to evade legal liability.

Rather than follow the law, they rewrote it. Grey offers a convincing explanation about how the administration's in-house legal apologists built a paper façade - a wall of memos -- with which to cover up the illegality of the CIA's rendition and detention program.

Grey paints a compelling picture of the U.S.'s program of detainee abuse, but his story remains incomplete. Although much is now know about the practice of rendition to foreign detention, far less is about the CIA's own secret prisons.

Unsurprisingly, the Administration is now taking extraordinary steps to try to bar the fourteen prisoners who were transferred to Guantanamo a few months ago from describing their treatment in CIA custody. When the truth finally gets out, a revised and expanded edition of Ghost Plane may be next.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney based in New York and Paris. Her columns on Guantanamo, CIA prisons, and other detention issues may be found in FindLaw's archive.

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