Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program

Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program

by Stephen Grey

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On June 10th, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the US had captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to explode a "dirty bomb" on American soil. That alleged terrorist was José Padilla who was finally charged in 2005 with conspiracy to murder. What Ashcroft didn't talk about was how information against him was obtained – by the relentless torture of one man— Binyam Mohamed, in the name of the United States. Arrested at Karachi Airport before Padilla's arrest on April 10, 2002, Mohamed was put on a luxury executive jet and flown to an interrogation center in Morocco. For over 18 months, he was subjected to one torture after another: Beating followed beating and, then, his guards produced razor blades and began to split the skin all over his body, including on his genitals. Since 1997, hundreds of people, many of whom have no ties to terrorist organizations, have been abducted from foreign airports or street corners on suspicions based at times on the flimsiest of evidence courtesy of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In Ghost Plane, Stephen Grey tells the true story of the CIA's torture program known by the euphemism "extraordinary rendition" and the airplanes that make the program run. Begun during the Clinton administration, but taking a decidedly more voracious turn after 9/11, the rendition system has seen the transfer of more than 1000 prisoners into jails stretching from Guantanamo to Syria, from Kabul to Bangkok and beyond. Grey had access to the thousands of CIA flight records and has interviewed dozens of sources from the most senior levels of the National Security Council to the CIA. In Ghost Plane, he paints a disturbing picture of the War on Terror that reaches to the highest levels of power in Washington, D.C. and exposes the extreme ethical corruption at the heart of this US government program, a program finally acknowledged by President George Bush in September 2006, undertaken in the name of the citizens of the United States.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312360245
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/18/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 686,954
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

STEPHEN GREY is an award-winning investigative journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, 60 Minutes, ABC News, CNN, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly, the BBC and other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Ghost Plane

The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program
By Grey, Stephen

St. Martin's Griffin

Copyright © 2007 Grey, Stephen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312360245

Chapter 1
Stockholm, Sweden, Bromma airPort, December 18, 2001, 8:20 p.m.—It was a dark and chilly night when the two cars pulled up within two yards of an entrance door to the airport’s small security office. The sky was clear, and with a breeze blowing from the southwest, the temperature hovered just above freezing. It was approaching the worst of the near Arctic winter. The sun had set more than five hours ago.
Paul Forell, a uniformed officer of the border police with twenty-five years’ experience, was already at his post inside and completing some paperwork. It was then a group of plainclothes detectives walked in, officers of the Swedish security police, known as SAPO. They said that the deportation operation was getting under way. Ten minutes later, two Americans dressed in suits walked into Forell’s office. Both were about thirty-five years old. They gave their first names and said they were from the U.S. Embassy. They obviously knew the SAPO officers already, he recalled.
As they were speaking, and just before 9:00 p.m., an American-registered Gulfstream V jet was touching down on the 5,400-foot runway. Some of the SAPO officers went to meet the U.S. plane, and found onboarda security team of “seven or eight, among them a doctor and two Egyptian officials.” In the cars parked outside Forell’s police station, dressed in ordinary clothes but in handcuffs, were two other Egyptian citizens, both suspected terrorists under arrest and awaiting deportation. The security team from the plane reached the parked cars and, one at a time, brought the arrested men inside. Everything now went very fast.
“I think there were four or five people who were around every suspect, so it was at least twelve or fifteen persons in my little station. The first guy was coming in, they asked, ‘What room can I use?’ So I just showed them inside there [an inner room] and pointed with my fingers.” Forell described the agents as wearing black masks, with small holes that showed their eyes.
In the crowded office with Forell were now several SAPO and other plainclothes police officers, two Americans in suits, about eight agents in masks, and an interpreter, too. What happened next would later cause a political crisis in Stockholm. The Americans were operating on Swedish soil, and officially this was simply a Swedish deportation. But Forell watched as his SAPO colleagues allowed the U.S. agents to take the prisoners one by one into the small, separate changing room to carry out what the Americans described as a “security check.” According to a later inquiry, this security check included “a body search, their clothes were cut to pieces and placed in bags, their hair was thoroughly examined, as were their oral cavities and ears. In addition they were handcuffed and their ankles fettered. Each was then dressed in an overall and photographed. Finally loose hoods without holes for their eyes were placed over their heads.” Meanwhile, Forell stayed behind watching from the public premises. Later, one of the Egyptians reported that he had been given some kind of sedative, which had been administered by suppository. It left him drowsy.
Throughout, said Forell, the masked Americans kept very quiet. “They were talking very, very swiftly. And quiet. So I couldn’t understand what they were saying. . . . And as I said before, they were acting very professional.” Forell thought the whole incident very strange. “My Swedish colleagues, they didn’t give me any information [on] what the case was about. The only thing they were telling me was that [these are] two prisoners that are suspected for terrorists, and that’s it.” He continued: “There was one thing I kept thinking of a little: It is a little extraordinary that we had not been contacted about the plane, because all aircraft that come from [outside of the European passport-free zone] are to contact the police, and no one informed us that an American plane would land at Bromma.”
The two Egyptian prisoners were loaded onto the Gulfstream. Both were strapped down on mattresses at the rear. The plane finally took off into the dark, moonless sky at 9:49 p.m.
What happened that night at Bromma Airport had given Paul Forell and his colleagues a glimpse into a secret system of prisoner transfers. The security team involved was from the CIA. And in the following years these men in black masks would be spotted again and again in locations across the world. In fact, a month before the Swedish case, a reporter in Pakistan had got wind of these men when they came to pick up another prisoner. “The entire operation was so mysterious that all persons involved in the operation, including U.S. troops, were wearing masks,” a source at Karachi airport told the reporter.
In Gambia, West Africa, a British resident was loaded on the same plane the following year and saw “big people in black balaclavas.” In Pakistan, another Londoner was put on a plane to Morocco by operatives “dressed in black, with masks, wearing what looked like Timberland boots.” In Macedonia, a German was handed over to a CIA team that consisted of “seven to eight men all dressed in black, with black gloves and wearing black masks. All you could see was their eyes.”
The means of transport of this security team was always a luxury business jet, often the Gulfstream used in Sweden. A glance at the records of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would show the plane, with a registration N379P, belonged to a company in Dedham, Massachusetts, called Premier Executive Transport Services. But this official ownership record was a sham, a cover story. Its real home was an airport in North Carolina and in a blue hangar, screened by pine trees, at the headquarters of a company called Aero Contractors Ltd. This was a front company that, as I found out, was directly run for the CIA itself. So what was going on in Sweden, and in all these cases? 
Smithfield, North Carolina, Johnston County Airport, one night earlier—It was a warm and overcast night when the crew of the Gulfstream gathered for the first leg of their 16,400-mile trip. Their first stop, as always, would be a safe in the company’s office. Here they would pick up their passports and pilots’ licenses, all made out in false names. These men were among the country’s finest aviators. They were prepared, at a drop of a hat, to fly a mission to almost anywhere: to land on a tiny strip in a jungle swamp, to take off uphill or downhill in fearsome winds, and to brave enemy gunfire as they did so. Tonight’s mission was not so hair-raising. But these men were CIA pilots, and so they traveled undercover.
The Johnston County airport was in the town of Smithfield, a sleepy place less than an hour’s drive out of the state capital of Raleigh. Probably its only claim to fame was when General Sherman stood outside the courthouse in April 1865 and heard news of the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate armies at Appomattox. On a Sunday, when I visited, its streets resounded with Harley-Davidsons heading for their local hangout, the Last Resort Bar. Nothing here seemed to move very fast. Even the Harleys kept to the speed limit. But the small airport, surrounded by tobacco fields, pine forests, and some small industries, had been chosen by the CIA precisely because it was so quiet. It was also close to Fort Bragg, home of Special Forces, whose operators often joined the CIA’s paramilitary missions.
In the darkness that December evening, the Gulfstream was rolled out of its blue metal hanger. After final checks, the plane took off at 7:13 p.m. and headed north for the 30-minute flight to Washington DC. It was at Dulles, the closest suitable airport to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, that the airmen picked up their first passengers. These were the men and women, including a doctor, from the Rendition Group. They had black masks stuffed into their bags. At 9:36 p.m. the Gulfstream took off from Dulles and set a course across the Atlantic. Its destination was Cairo, Egypt.
stockholm, Sweden, the Rosenbad Palace, December 18, 2001, 11:45 a.m.—Göran Persson, the prime minister, was with his cabinet of ten in his official residence, across the lake from his country’s parliament. They sat around a large oval table, considering an agenda of forty-eight items. All had to be completed by lunchtime. Officially, at least, the decision to request U.S. assistance had not been taken. But by now the CIA’s Gulfstream was crossing the Mediterranean, already embarked on its mission on behalf of Sweden. Anna Lindh, the foreign minister, now asked the cabinet to make a small but momentous decision: the rejection of a claim for asylum and immediate expulsion of the two Egyptian terror suspects under the Swedish Aliens Act. The cabinet was said to take less than a minute to grant their approval. As soon as they were informed, immigration officials began completing their final paperwork. At 4:00 p.m. an official letter was posted by registered delivery to the two men’s lawyers that announced their expulsion. The deportation operation, however, was already swinging into action.
Fifteen minutes’ walk from Persson’s residence, an immigration lawyer was sitting at his desk in his downtown office. Kjell Jönsson was completing a rather ordinary day. At about 5:00 p.m., he was on the phone to one of his many clients, an asylum seeker from Egypt named Mohammed al-Zery. Al-Zery was speaking from his workplace, a bakery café selling Middle Eastern pastries in Stockholm’s concrete suburb of Spänga. “Suddenly there was a voice interrupting our conversation,” remembered Jönsson. “I heard someone say in Swedish: ‘Hang up the telephone.’ It was the police, who had come to arrest him.” It was the last time Jönsson would speak to his client for more than two years. Just a few minutes before al-Zery’s arrest, the other Egyptian, Ahmed Agiza, was also picked up by the security police. He was at a bus stop in the town of Karlstad on his way back from Swedish language classes in Stockholm. The time of his arrest was 4:55 p.m.
Unknown to Jönsson, his client was a wanted man. Egypt had issued arrest warrants for both al-Zery and Agiza. The Swedish state had accepted that both were technically refugees, because both could expect to be persecuted if they returned to their home country. Even if that asylum claim was rejected, both men would normally have a right to appeal. Sweden, after all, was a liberal country. But the security police, SAPO, had presented some additional secret information against the men that, under Swedish law, allowed normal judicial proceedings to be bypassed. Both, it was held, were members of an illegal terrorist organization. Today, in an unusual fashion, the Swedish cabinet had functioned as both judge and jury. It was SAPO and the CIA now that would execute their guilty verdict. By the time Jönsson called the ministry to check for news, he was told his client was already in Cairo. “I was given no hint about how this deportation was carried out,” he said.
One hour before the arrests, the CIA plane had already taken off from Cairo. Its route now took it northwest across Europe. The CIA had picked up the two Egyptian officers. The idea was that legally speaking the two prisoners would never be in U.S. custody. America, on this occasion, would just be a travel agency. For the return flight from Stockholm to Cairo, the team was augmented by a Swedish security officer and an interpreter. The CIA had originally said there was no room for any Swedes but later they had relented. The Swedes saw the men’s handcuffs, ankle chains, and hoods were kept on for the entire flight. In his own notes, the Swedish officer recorded that the men “were kept under observation for the entire time and the guards were changed every other hour. The doctor in the escort inspected them all the time (Agiza and al-Zery were probably given a tranquillizer by the doctor before take-off).” Just after 3:30 a.m. local time the plane reached Cairo. It was met by Egyptian security officials, and the prisoners were driven off in a transit van. The Swedes considered their work done.
For the flight crew of the jet from North Carolina, it was off to a hotel for some rest. For the two arrested men it was off to visit Egyptian intelligence. The interrogations, they said later, began the same night, and it would be five weeks before they received a visitor.
cairo, Egypt, Lazoghly Square, October 2003—It was a sweltering day as I walked through downtown Cairo. It was here I had begun my investigations into rendition, and my destination was one of the city’s most feared places. I had walked over from Egypt’s Museum of Antiquities. Fifteen minutes later I reached a square compound with black-painted walls and white pillbox windows. There were fixed machine guns on each corner. This jail building was the headquarters of Egyptian State Security (ESS), the internal secret police. It was also an interrogation center. I had an appointment, I thought, with a secret policeman inside. I entered through the public entrance, passing through a metal detector, and sat in a waiting room. Around me there were family groups, chattering nervously. Some clutched photographs of their missing relatives. After about fifteen minutes an official came to send me away. There would be no comment today.
I had begun in Egypt because of what I’d heard: It was to Egypt that the United States was sending its prisoners. One source spoke of a secret prison, constructed by the United States since 9/11, especially for their rendered prisoners. He heard it was in Upper Egypt, near the Aswan dam. I never did confirm that rumor. What I did find out were the basics—how exactly this country treats its own prisoners. I called the Egyptian Ministry of Information, the channel for all journalists’ queries, and asked for an official interview with the security agencies. That request was declined, but a helpful press officer suggested I speak to someone else, a lawyer named Montasser al-Zayat, who represented many of the prisoners. Al-Zayat was an intriguing figure, part dissident and part government intermediary. He once knew Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy. He also had helped negotiate the country’s most important ceasefire—the ending of hostilities by the Gama’a al’Islamiyya terrorist group. These were the ones behind the Luxor Massacre. Meeting me in his office, al-Zayat said he’d heard much about the Americans’ transfer of prisoners. “We have heard of full airplanes arriving at night,” he said, “but these prisoners are kept very, very isolated. It’s really difficult to learn more.” Cairo’s government argued that terrorist suspects were dealt with according to the law and were brought to an open trial, albeit in a military not a civil court. Before the prisoner came to court he had the chance to meet and discuss his treatment not only with a prosecutor but also with his own lawyer. But al-Zayat explained the government’s trick: “When a prisoner is sent back to Egypt, he basically disappears for up to three months. That’s when he is interrogated and tortured, and when he is allowed no visitors. Only after that, when his wounds are healing, does he see the prosecutor and have visitors.” Some, he explained, never reached that stage and simply remained disappeared. Later I visited other lawyers who confirmed these stories. Most had been imprisoned themselves at one time or another. They knew these matters at first hand.
The final destination for Islamist prisoners, most said, was generally a prison on the outskirts of the city known as the Torah Prison and its inner maximum security compound known as al-Aqrab, or the Scorpion. This was where Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zery were being held. One evening, I joined friends for a sunset cruise up the Nile. It was from this boat, as I sipped a glass of wine, that I first saw the prison’s forbidding watchtowers. Within these walls had been held, at one time or other, some of the world’s most infamous terrorists. The torture they received there, said many, had also helped inspire some of their most extreme ideas. Journalists who approached much closer without permission could expect a quick invitation to a police cell.
By now, on this, my first trip to Cairo, the story of Agiza and al-Zery was well known, all of it apart from the involvement of the CIA. Ushered from the airport, I was to learn, they had been taken first to the offices of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (EGIS), its foreign intelligence service. Run since 1993 by General Omar Suleiman, a close friend of the West, this was the spy agency that had the closest links with America and the CIA. From there they were transferred to Lazoghly Square, the headquarters of state security. They were shuttled between there and the agency’s new annex in western Cairo for interrogation. Finally they made it to the Torah Prison, itself a feared place of detention and torture, but at least somewhere they could at last receive visitors. Although Sweden had promised to visit the two prisoners and check on their treatment, it was only when the prisoners arrived in Torah that that country’s diplomats got access to them, more than four weeks after their arrival. According to the two men, they had been treated brutally from the moment of their arrival. Jönsson, al-Zery’s lawyer, said his client received horrific treatment for more than two months after he arrived, at the hands of Suleiman’s intelligence agents, at state security, and finally in the Torah prison. “Al-Zery was exposed to torture,” said Jönsson. “He was kept in a very cold, very small cell, and he was beaten. The most painful thing was the electrical torture that he was exposed to, where electrodes were put to all sensitive parts of his body many times—all under surveillance by a medical doctor.”
Interviewed later in Cairo, Agiza’s mother, Hamida Shalibai, who visited her son in prison many times, described his account of his treatment: “When he arrived in Egypt, they took him, while hooded and handcuffed, to a building. He was led to an underground facility, going down a staircase. Then, they started interrogation, and torture. Whenever they would ask him a question, and he provided the answer, they wouldn’t do anything. But as soon as he was asked a question, and he replied by ‘don’t know,’ they would apply electric shocks to his body, and beat him. All of this was happening while he was naked. He was completely naked, without any clothes to cover his body! Not even underwear! He almost froze to death.”
Back in Sweden at the end of 2001, the deportation of the two Egyptians had been portrayed by the government as evidence of Sweden’s support for the war on terror, as indeed it was. Two days after the expulsion the Associated Press (AP) headlined an article “Swedish Government Repatriates Two Suspected Terrorists.” Gun-Britt Andersson, a foreign ministry official, declared: “We have clear evidence that they have had leading positions in organizations that have committed terrorist acts.” As the news broke in the United States, one terrorism expert explained to the Boston Globe how the deportation signaled a shift in attitudes. “It’s much more important than just between Egypt and Sweden,” said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. European countries “clearly understand that they are with the United States in fighting the terrorist menace, and they know that they have to do so despite the fact that they may draw domestic political criticism,” he said.
As the Associated Press then reported, Agiza had been one of Egypt’s most wanted. He had been sentenced to twenty-five years in jail in 1999 after being convicted in his absence by a military court. Egypt had accused Agiza of being a key member of Islamic Jihad, one of the regime’s fiercest foes, and of helping plot the 1995 bomb attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was also said to have once been close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, and had even met bin Laden himself.
In contrast to Agiza’s known charge sheet, few were able to find much evidence of any accusations against al-Zery. Egypt was said to be preparing charges against him. It was not clear what they were.
I later interviewed an Egyptian activist in London who had a theory of why both the United States and Sweden suddenly took an interest in al-Zery. On October 23, fifty-six days before the Gulfstream came to Sweden, Yasser al-Sirri, an Egyptian dissident and campaigner for prisoners’ rights, was arrested in London. Scotland Yard questioned and charged al-Sirri over his alleged involvement in the murder of the Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in a suicide bomb attack just before September 11. Al-Sirri was later cleared of these charges. A judge described him as an “innocent fall guy.” But at the time of his October arrest, Scotland Yard had seized al-Sirri’s computer hard drive and fax machine. The computer contained details of all the people he was in contact with. That information, he was told, was immediately shared with the U.S. authorities. And among those contacts on al-Sirri’s computer was an Egyptian in Sweden, Mohammed al-Zery.
“He asked me for help in many things. He wanted help with his asylum claim, and he was even asking for help in finding a wife,” said al-Sirri, interviewed in London a few years after his release. In the days that followed his arrest in London, al-Sirri discovered later, up to a dozen people in his computer address book and among his files were arrested around the world. They included friends and relations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, and Sweden. Prior to his arrest, he later revealed, al-Zery had warned that an Egyptian secret agent had visited Sweden to spy on him. “He worked in a café: There was an Egyptian who found him there and followed him home and tried to speak to him. We later discovered he was a general in the Egyptian secret intelligence,” said al-Sirri.
As soon as the deportations were first revealed in Sweden, there was criticism from human rights activists. Amnesty International warned that the men were “at grave risk of torture.” In the months ahead there was to be a relentless campaign against the Swedish government over the decision, still ongoing when I visited Cairo in October 2003. But one thing had not yet been made public: the involvement of American agents, and the U.S. Gulfstream jet. Copyright © 2006, 2007 by Stephen Grey. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from Ghost Plane by Grey, Stephen Copyright © 2007 by Grey, Stephen. Excerpted by permission.
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