Chris Buchanan: How did you first get hooked into this story of the CIA mystery flights?
Stephen Grey: I was covering the aftermath of September the 11th. I was in Washington, DC, and I started to hear about a tactic the CIA had already been using to deal with al Qaeda and, by all accounts, was expanding dramatically. I first heard about the term “rendition” from a man who became head of the CIA, Porter Goss. At the time, he was head of the House Intelligence Committee [and went on to run the CIA from September 2004 until May 2006]. I sat down with him and I was asking about how the fight against Osama bin Laden had been pursued. I asked if they had ever tried to kidnap him or capture him. He said, “Well, it’s called rendition. Have you heard the term?” I said, “No.” He said it was a polite way of bringing people to some kind of justice. I was intrigued. I went out and asked more people about it.
Stephen Grey is former head of investigations at The Sunday Times in London and author of the acclaimed book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program. He is one of a handful of journalists to uncover the secrets of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, beginning with flight logs of the CIA’s private planes, which he helped uncover to bring the program to public attention. In this interview, he describes how he tracked CIA jets used to move suspects around a secret global network of prisons. “There was an extraordinary amount of carelessness involved in the way the tracks were covered,” Grey explains. He also discusses the growing moral and legal debate over the treatment and disappearance of hundreds of suspects in the war on terror, and what he believes is the right course of action to take. The interview took place on October 1st, 2007.
The key moment for me was in January when Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was opened, and you saw those images of the prisoners being wheeled around and shackled in orange uniforms. At that time, I met someone who was working with the CIA. He said to me, “Hold on a second, what you're seeing in Guantanamo is just part of the story. The cameras are actually in Guantanamo because they’ve been invited. That’s what the United States wants the world to see. But there's a whole story out there. Many, many more prisoners scattered in prisons around the world [are] being moved from place to place.” It gave me insight into another world that was out there that wasn’t being reported. So I set out over the next few years to reveal something that I felt was missing from most of the reporting.
At the time, you were working for The Sunday Times [in London]. Is that right?
Yes. I used to head the investigation team at The Sunday Times of London, and I moved on from that role. I never got the chance to investigate this story [there] even though I was working on many investigations. I decided to quit the job to pursue this story with my own resources -- my own money -- to go out and travel round where necessary. I went to Egypt. I went to Iraq. I went to the United States, to Canada. I was trying to get to the bottom of something, which I felt that no newspaper or media organization was bothering to invest money.
You had a full-time job, and you just quit to do that? Did people think you were crazy?
Yeah, when I left The Sunday Times, I spoke to one of my editors and said, “I’m going off and investigate the CIA rendition program. It’s a totally secret program to send people around the world.” And he said, “How the hell are you going to do that?” And I thought, “How the hell am I going to do it?” I’ve got no idea. I really didn’t know how it would be possible to penetrate the CIA, the world’s most famous intelligence organization, that wall of secrecy. And when I finally did -- with others -- it came as a great surprise that you really could track down the movements of CIA operatives. They'd leave all kinds of amazing clues. And you could actually get hold of flight plans of the CIA fleet of airplanes -- their entire network of operations around the world, just laid out before you. I ended up with thousands of flight plans of the CIA planes, which enabled me to pinpoint and confirm all kinds of stories of rendition that prisoners were coming up with.
You would think these things would be secret. How could you track these flights?
I was amazed that it was possible to find this information. There was this one moment when I was staring at thousands of flight plans of CIA planes and thought, “How is it that I could get this information? It’s so secret.” But the key thing was that they [the CIA] were using a cover story of being a civilian airline. They were travelling around as if they were VIP or businessmen. Therefore they had to use the means of the civilian world. They had to file regular flight plans. They had to give names of the aircrew that were being used. I found a source inside air traffic control who was able to get me this information. It was confidential information, but it wasn’t ultra secret and that allowed me to get a handle on all their movements.
Were they just being careless or was this part of a plot that they figured nobody would notice?
I think every CIA officer involved in a covert action always expects a moment when the whole thing is going to break open. But there was an extraordinary amount of carelessness involved in the way the tracks were covered. They could have blocked me and many other people from following the movements of these planes. There's a mechanism in place to allow these things to be kept confidential. They didn’t take that. I used to get live reports that a plane was about to take off to a particular destination – a CIA plane. I was tracking that as a journalist. But you know much darker forces could have gotten that same piece of information and had somebody waiting for those people. It was an extraordinary breach of security. And when they operated in the field, many of these people made lavish use of credit cards. They collected frequent-flier miles as they moved around, allowing you to trace afterward their entire movement around Europe, for instance. And they spent quite liberally with the company’s money.
Were these public records or were these records that you had to get under the table somehow?
I did make use of public records, and there was information you could obtain which came from the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, which showed some movements of these planes. There were also plane spotters, people who sit by airports watching different planes arrive. The key piece of information was not public, but it wasn’t classified and that was flight data from air traffic controllers who control the movements of airplanes across the world.
Describe how you managed to work out how these different companies were hiring these planes and how it all led back to the CIA?
I started off with reports that were out there from one or two prisoners who described their rendition. How they'd been snatched in one place, taken to another. And [I] found a plane that was a Gulf Stream jet being used for those particular renditions. From that, I was able to trace who owned that plane, the kind of front company involved. I started looking at all kinds of planes flying around and visiting places that were connected to the CIA. Places like Guantanamo. Places like Camp Peary, a CIA training base. Airports of interest like Cairo, Kabul, Baghdad. I looked at the different planes that went to those destinations, so I could come up with a shortlist. Then working with other reporters, I got hold of the owners of those planes. And what we found was an incredible story where the people who were running those companies were fictitious. They were people who had names that didn’t trace on any database except [to] an address to a post box in North Virginia, or [these people] had Social Security numbers issued in the 1990s when they were in their 50s -- people who were clearly fictitious. We also found that they used the same address, the same people for different companies. So drawing that together you had a whole network of front companies, all used by the CIA. Clearly, they were interconnected. Finally, we got to speak to some of the pilots, and I met one or two actually working for the CIA. They confirmed that, “Yes, I’m a CIA pilot. I was hired to do this job, and I was hired finally with an interview at Langley, Virginia,” where the headquarters of the CIA are located.
So their paychecks came from the CIA?
The paychecks for these pilots came from the front companies that were set up -- a company like Aero Contractors, which is based in North Carolina. They were vetted by the CIA. [Their staff] took the polygraph, the lie detector, in a hotel very close to Langley. They were actually responding originally to adverts for CIA pilots. And they were given fake passports, fake pilots’ licenses, fake credit cards -- all issued in false names. The whole process ended with an interview at Langley, where they were made to sign a form saying, “I will never claim to work for the CIA. I’ll never speak about this publicly.” There was one copy of the form they signed and that was taken away. Then, they spent the next years working alongside the CIA on every kind of covert action mission that the CIA carries out. Not just renditions.
Describe how the U.S. is supposed to get assurances that a prisoner will not be tortured once handed over to a foreign country? What are they supposed to do?
In theory, international law requires that you can't deport somebody to another country if it’s likely they're going to be tortured. Now everyone I’ve spoken to involved in this program at the CIA knew full well these people would be tortured. But to provide a kind of legal cover -- a fig leaf, really -- they used to get assurances from these countries that [the prisoners] wouldn’t be tortured. As one U.S. ambassador to Egypt said, it was a kind of wink very often. “Yes, yes, we won't torture them. Don’t worry.” But it provides the cover. It means that the president and the attorney general can come forward and say, “Yes, we’ve got cast-iron assurances that these people wouldn’t be tortured.” But to those involved in the process, it was often a very informal thing, sometimes even verbal. That provided a cover for a system in which people knew these guys were going to get tortured.
They wanted them to get tortured?
The primary purpose of renditions, as far as I can tell from speaking to the CIA involved, was to get people off the streets, to “disappear” them. But they did use these disappearances to carry out interrogations. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, described by [former CIA director] George Tenet as the most important al Qaeda prisoner when he was picked up in American hands, was sent to Egypt specifically -- to quote Tenet again -- for his interrogation to be outsourced to Egypt. It was a result of this rendition to Egypt that Tenet came up with information suggesting a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which was used as one of the key arguments to justify the war in Iraq. False intelligence, but intelligence that had risen and was kept quiet as a result of a rendition to Egypt.
And as a result of being tortured, at some point Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi gives up and says, “I’ll say whatever you want me to say”?
He was tortured in Egypt. That’s the clear conclusion of people in the CIA and the FBI who followed that rendition. But Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi has been hidden. He's not emerged from captivity. We haven’t heard his story. When President [George] Bush announced the transfer of the highest value prisoners to Guantanamo Bay to be put on trial, there were some key names missing. One of them is Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. To this day, there's been no full accountability for what they did to him. We haven’t heard his account of exactly how he was treated.
What’s the definition of extraordinary rendition?
Extraordinary rendition is not an official term, but it describes something very precise. Rendition as a concept has been around for many years, and the president has said that. That means the transfer of a prisoner from one country to another without any legal process, without any extradition or court hearing. For many years, we’ve had renditions to justice. We've had people snatched around the world or arrested and brought back to the United States to be put on trial. An extraordinary rendition is something that began in the mid-1990s and was intensified after September 11th. It is the transfer of people to another country, a third country, not to justice but to disappear within a system where there are no public trials, no accountability, to countries where torture is quite routine.
Describe the genesis of the CIA black sites.
We had a situation after September the 11th, a panic if you like, that we didn’t know whether al Qaeda would attack again. We didn’t know how many sleeper cells were around. Everyone wanted to know, “What is the threat? What can we find out about the objectives of al Qaeda?” So there was a huge demand after September 11th for real-time intelligence, and we were capturing top al Qaeda leaders and wanting to find out what they knew.
After September the 11th, there weren’t any facilities. There wasn’t any training for the CIA to carry out those interrogations. There weren’t people who'd been through training school who actually knew how to interrogate people. And so in the very first rush, most of the top high-value prisoners were rendered to other countries for those interrogations to take place. But the CIA knew that to get reliable information, it needed to establish its own facilities and it didn’t want to use the court of law or any legal process. It didn’t want to read prisoners their rights and get the FBI involved. For that reason, [the CIA] set up the black sites. Places without access to the Red Cross, lawyers or really anyone who wasn’t privy to this very, very secret program. These [black sites] gave the CIA all the time in the world to put pressure on prisoners to give everything they knew. And [the CIA] used techniques that most people would regard as at least tantamount to torture and certainly psychological torture.
Was it too important to leave the interrogation to other countries?
Everyone involved in the process of interrogation knows that reliable information isn’t going to come from brutal and uncontrolled tactics. Electric shock treatments, cutting people up, beating them up -- all quite medieval processes of interrogation used in countries like Egypt, Syria, Uzbekistan. [The CIA] knew that they'd have to have a controlled situation, where the U.S. had these people in their own hands. This information was so important we had to do it ourselves. The problem was -- at least initially -- that we didn’t really know how and all [the] kinds of techniques used, which in hindsight most people who were involved regret.
There is an Amnesty International report from April 2007 saying that 39 individuals are still thought to be held in U.S. custody. Nobody knows where they are. What can you tell us about that?
Since the war on terror began, there have been thousands of prisoners captured around the world. Ten thousand at least in Afghanistan, and that’s according to the Department of Defense. Now we only know the fate of a tiny fraction of those prisoners. We know the fate of probably one-fifth of the people who've been captured. There's been no accountability and no public statements of what they’ve done with most of these prisoners. There are at least 39 very important prisoners who were captured. People --like Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a top al Qaeda commander -- who we know were arrested and have completely disappeared from the scene. There's been no accountability. So what we have is a story of how a program was set up and how people are being brought to trial. It seems that finally light is going to be shed on the whole process. At last, we can bring people to some kind of justice. But what's not being talked about is what's happened to all the rest. People who have just disappeared and whose stories, if they do come out, may be of deep embarrassment to the administration. People like Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who through his testimony obtained under torture, helped take the United States to war in Iraq. Why that whole story is being kept quiet is difficult to say, but one reason may be simply that it’s too embarrassing politically. And for that reason, he's disappeared off to another country.
So the government has said that it has closed the black sites. There are 39 people who have disappeared. Any idea where they are?
From what I’ve heard from people inside the administration who've been working with the CIA, they don’t have anyone hidden in any secret CIA black site. What they have done is put them in the hands of allies -- people like the Libyans and the Syrians and the Egyptians. Pretty rough allies -- allies maybe not politically, but [allies] who can be relied on for one thing. These people are going to disappear. They're not going to talk. They will be kept out of the public domain. And they won't be back on the streets again posing any threat to America.
The president’s July 2007 executive order on the Geneva Conventions, on the CIA program. Can you explain that?
The CIA program of black sites has been in crisis. It was exposed publicly. And lawyers, governments and peoples around the world have started to protest about a system in which a country founded on liberties has set up a whole system of secret and indefinite detention. Finally, the Supreme Court last year ruled that despite everything that’s been decided after September the 11th, the Geneva Conventions apply. So people involved in this process have been fearing that they might actually be prosecuted, that everything they’ve been doing might be illegal. That’s why it’s taken a new executive order, which has reinstituted the whole process of secret detention on a new footing and provided a new list of interrogation techniques that are acceptable. Out the window now are techniques like waterboarding, which is making a prisoner feel like he’s going to be drowned by dunking him in water or having water dripped all over him. That’s out now. There are new techniques. They're not disclosed. What we know now, though, is that the CIA feels it has the mandate, the rules, which will allow it to act if there's a new phase of attacks, a new round of prisoners who need to be captured. The law is in place now.CIA [personnel] have got the orders, which means they can go back to holding people in secret -- possibly for indefinite periods.
The president says we’re following the Geneva Conventions. This is the war on terror; we are Americans; we believe in due process. And this is my new order? What's that mean?
The president says [the U.S. government] has been following the Geneva Conventions, but the reality is that since September 11th, most of the key agencies -- the Department of Defense and particularly the CIA -- have been under the impression that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply and, therefore, they used techniques which to people would not fit in with the Geneva Conventions requirements that there should be no form of cruel or inhumane treatment of prisoners. That’s why they [the CIA] use techniques like prolonged stress positions and sleep depravation and even this technique of waterboarding. Most people would regard that as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. In fact, from what I hear from sources … the Red Cross has compiled a report describing what high-value prisoners held at black sites have said about their treatment. And this report -- as it’s been reported here -- spells out in great detail what happened. The conclusion of the Red Cross is that grave violations of Geneva Conventions have occurred, and there are people involved in those programs who are liable to prosecution for war crimes should the U.S. ever decide to fully investigate what's happened.
Is the president’s new order saying it’s OK to do these things now? Or are the things he's including in the executive order not torture? We’re free now. It’s OK. We’ve gotten rid of the bad stuff?
Things have been tightened up, and there are techniques that are not allowed anymore. But precisely what techniques are still allowed remains totally classified. Until someone’s released from the new program of secret detention, we won't know exactly what techniques were used. There's a huge debate about what is inhumane and what is acceptable or not. There are people, people who've been involved in interrogations themselves, who argue that holding someone incommunicado for months on end, years on end, without any knowledge of what's going to happen to them [or knowledge of] what they're accused of, without [letting them] see daylight, without [letting them] be touched, is a form of torture. The British parliamentary intelligence committee, their oversight committee, investigated this whole area and came to the conclusion that the very concept of secret detention, indefinite detention that is now being authorized again, despite the Supreme Court’s decision is illegal under international law. It constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
So the program is back on?
The program is back on. There aren’t many enthusiasts now inside the CIA who want to round up dozens of people anymore, but the threat is still there. The key thing is that until Congress and the American people decide on a way of dealing with prisoners in the courtroom according to the rule of law -- a way of bringing terrorist suspects back to the United States to put them on trial and to hold them so they won't be a threat -- until that process is set up, the CIA probably hasn’t got any alternative but either to hold prisoners secretly in their own detention system or to render them to countries that will do the CIA’s bidding.
[CIA Director] General [Michael] Hayden says there haven’t been that many renditions and they're really targeted just to get the valuable information from the most dangerous terrorists. What's your take on that?
General Hayden said that reports had been exaggerated, that there would have been a 100 or so prisoners inside the CIA black sites and mid-two figures -- around 50 people, apart from those who had been rendered. Altogether, though, it’s quite an admission. He’s talking about at least 150 people who have been subject to rendition. In fact, most people who are in the CIA black sites after they’ve been interrogated by the CIA are then rendered again. So it’s a lot of people we’re talking about. Even so, I think that his choice of language betrays the fact that there are actually many more people in this situation. Egypt has talked about at least 60 people sent to Egypt alone under the rendition program. Just this year, in the Horn of Africa, we’ve seen more than 100 people rendered from country to country. We’ve seen dozens sent to Uzbekistan from Afghanistan. I think General Hayden chose his words very carefully to downplay the picture. But the bottom line is that there were thousands of people who the U.S. has captured, several thousand in Afghanistan alone. I think about 800 people were sent to maximum [security detention] in Guantanamo. And the rest were either released or sent off to some other country with no accountability. It’s all very well giving the figures for one type of rendition, but what about everyone else? Where's the accountability? Where's the openness when it comes to the thousands of people who've just disappeared in the war on terror?
What do you know of the contents of this Red Cross report?
My understanding is that the Red Cross report is the first detailed examination of exactly what happened in the [black sites]. It’s the first time the Red Cross has gotten access to all the key prisoners the CIA has had since September 11th, and [the Red Cross] asked them what happened. What they concluded is that there has been grave violations of the Geneva Conventions, that the techniques used against these people amounted to very clear cases of torture and that the people who carried out those acts, those interrogations, may well have carried out war crimes and could be prosecuted. It’s a very serious indictment or accusation against the United States, and for the moment, we’re entirely in the dark as to what the response of the U.S. government is to the report.
Do you think the high-value detainees at Guantanamo are going to be tried in court and have their stories come out in the open?
One way or another. The high-value prisoners still in America’s hands are going to get their day in court. They can’t be released without a trial, some of them are facing pretty serious accusations, but the Supreme Court and everyone else are demanding that justice apply. There’s a long way to go to decide exactly how these trials will take place, a lot of challenges. Many argue that the military commission process as it stands is deeply flawed -- that military commissions give less rights to prisoners than the Nazis received on trial in Nuremburg. They don’t get to hear all the evidence against them or even face all their accusers. It’s a contentious way of bringing people to trial, but one way or another it will happen. I don’t think anyone will accept anything else.
You were listening to audiotapes of the Guantanamo proceedings. What was it like listening to the detainees talk about their treatment in the [black sites]?
I’ve been trying to track the fate of some of these prisoners held in the [black sites] for years now. Just to hear those voices, coming through a crackly recording, [was] quite stunning. Then, just at the crucial moment when they were describing the torture they alleged they’d received, there would be this eerie silence -- the sound of [redaction], the sound of what’s being kept from us and the story that I think will soon emerge. This is the sound of a dark secret, this eerie, deep silence. I thought it was uncanny.
What do you think the long-term legacy of U.S. policy on rendition will be?
I think many people in the agency will say that rendition was a very successful tactic because it disrupted all kinds of terrorist operations, and they may be right. As a short-term tactic, it did disrupt many operations. The question is, Could they have used another technique that would have caused less damage over the long term. It’ll cause a reaction -- it has caused a reaction. People in the Arab world are furious, and the families of people involved will seek revenge. People have learned to hate America because of what’s happened. But the wider consequences are equally devastating. They are devastating to the ability of the United States to demand for liberty around the world. No longer can we look regime leaders in the eye, dictators in the eye, and say, “End your policy of secret detention, bring your prisoners to trial, allow freedom of expression.” We can’t look people in the eye and say or do these things; they’ll laugh and say, “But you’re doing these things.”