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September 11, 2001
U.S. Attacked, New Legal Framework Begins
After the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the Bush administration's legal team goes to work on strengthening executive powers and developing a new approach for the intelligence community to prevent further attacks. Five days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney tells Meet the Press, "A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies … it'’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective." He warns the public that the government will have to operate on "the dark side."
In the days after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, President Bush signs Presidential finding giving the CIA full discretion to capture, detain or kill identified terrorists throughout the world. Meanwhile, the White House legal counsel reviews the legal framework for treating terrorist suspects in the post-9/11 era. (Many suspects will soon be rounded up both on the battlefields of Afghanistan and around the world.) There is little appetite among the public, and in the administration, for giving terrorist suspects a trial in a U.S. courtroom. Instead, the White House lawyers ask whether, under the laws of war, suspects can be held indefinitely without any trial at all.
Afghanistan War, Patriot Act Rushed Through
The United States and Britain launch their first strikes on Afghanistan as part of Operation "Enduring Freedom." Soon after, Kabul falls to the Northern Alliance.
Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Patriot Act is passed with little Congressional debate. The full title of the bill is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001." The act will strengthen U.S. law enforcement and surveillance powers directed toward counterterrorism efforts. The act also sets civil liberties groups on a collision course with the government over what they view as violations of basic civil rights and the undermining of the Constitution.
First Top al Qaeda Figure Captured
Before his capture on the Pakistan border, Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi (a Libyan) was running al Qaeda's training camp in Khalden, Afghanistan, and was allegedly part of bin Laden's inner circle. In a July 2005 interview with FRONTLINE, a senior FBI officer involved in the case, Jack Cloonan, recalls his frustration over the fight between the FBI and the CIA for custody of al-Libi. Cloonan recalls telling his officers, "Look, guys, I want you to conduct yourselves just the way you would if that person was sitting right here in New York City. I want you to give him his advice of rights. … The [FBI] director fought long and hard, but he was overruled, and the [CIA] agency took him." Cloonan says FBI officers witnessed al-Libi being duct-taped and soon after rendered to Cairo for interrogation. Al-Libi's case becomes the first to raise serious questions about what means are acceptable for the CIA to use in an effort to extract information.
December 18, 2001
Asylum Seekers Rendered in Europe
In one of the first extraordinary rendition cases to come to light after 9/11, Muhammad al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza, two Egyptians seeking asylum in Sweden, are handed over to a hooded U.S. team at Stockholm's Bromma Airport and rendered to Egypt.
After 9/11, Agiza, in particular, has fallen under suspicion because of his alleged ties to militants implicated in the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The Swedish government turns down his request for asylum on national security grounds, and on the same day he is arrested and flown to Cairo. The Swedish government keeps secret the fact that it was a CIA team, dressed in black ski masks, that flew the two men to Egypt. Even though Agiza and al-Zery are not Swedish citizens, the Swedish government tries to monitor whether Egypt keeps its promises to treat both men fairly.
A Swedish television program investigating this case uncovers for the first time the tail number (N379P) of the Gulfstream jet used for the rendition. This is a key clue that allows journalist Stephen Grey to start his investigation tracking CIA airplanes, thus helping to prove the CIA’s involvement in many other rendition cases. Both men rendered from Sweden later allege being tortured at the hands of Egyptian intelligence officers. After two years in a Cairo prison, al-Zery is released. Agiza is convicted of terrorism charges in Egypt's Supreme Military Court and sentenced to 25 years, later reduced to 15.
First Detainees Arrive at Guantanamo
At the beginning of 2002, as the first detainees arrive at Guantanamo Bay (several hundred prisoners will be there by August), President Bush signs an executive order stating that al Qaeda and Taliban detainees will not be given POW status under the Geneva Conventions. In March, Abu Zubaydah will become the first prisoner rendered into CIA's own secret prisons, known as "black sites." He is one of al Qaeda's chief operations planners and is captured in Pakistan.
April 10, 2002
Arrest in Pakistan
Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian allegedly working with José Padilla, the so-called "dirty bomber" who was later arrested in Chicago, is taken into custody at Karachi Airport while attempting to leave the country on a false passport. The United States accuses Mohamed, whose home is in London, England, of receiving orders from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to carry out an attack with Padilla in the United States.
After his arrest, Mohamed is rendered to Morocco aboard the Gulfstream jet N379P and taken to what is most likely the Temara Prison near Rabat. He recounts being brutally tortured by his Moroccan guards and interrogators, including being cut with razor blades, during the 18 months he was held there.
From Morocco, he is taken to the CIA’s secret "dark prison" in Afghanistan and then on to Guantanamo. Here, Mohamed retracts his many confessions and is able to find a lawyer. He admits he did receive weapons training in Afghanistan but claims that it was to fight in Chechnya. And he denies knowing Padilla or plotting any attack.
The ACLU will later file a lawsuit on behalf of Mohamed and others against Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, which supplied flight services to the CIA's fleet of civilian planes used for renditions.
August 1, 2002
The Torture Memo
With Abu Zubaydah in custody, the CIA asks the administration's legal team for guidelines on what is lawfully acceptable in the interrogation of detainees. In a new memo, John C. Yoo, then-deputy assistant attorney general, tells Alberto Gonzales [then White House Legal Counsel] that it is admissible to "inflict pain" up to a level just shy of that "associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant bodily function will likely result." The memo’s aim is to push the legal limits of the "justification" for the torture of al Qaeda suspects and to place the administration’s war on terror outside international law.
September 26, 2002
Canadian Citizen Snatched
In September 2002, in what will become a high-profile example of extraordinary rendition, Canadian citizen Maher Arar is detained by U.S. officials at New York's JFK Airport and interrogated about alleged links to al Qaeda. The Syrian-born immigrant is held for seven days and then deported to Syria, where he spends 10 months at the notorious Palestine Branch Prison in Damascus. A year after his arrest, he is finally freed and sent home to Canada.
Arar's attempt to win compensation and an explanation in the U.S. courts fails after a judge rules that hearing the case would compromise U.S. national secrets. But in September 2006, a Canadian inquiry clears Arar of any involvement in terrorism; and in January 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizes to him in the name of Canada and orders he be paid US $9.75 million in compensation. The same month, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff confirm to Canadian officials that Arar remains on a U.S. watchlist but offer the Canadians no new evidence to justify this.
Powell’s Case for War
At the time of his capture by the CIA in Milan, Abu Omar is under surveillance by the Italian intelligence services for his connections with a fiery local cleric and for his suspected help in recruiting European Muslims to fight in the imminent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The same month, U.S. Secretary of State General Colin Powell, arguing the case for war against Iraq, tells the United Nations Security Council that "a senior terrorist operative" has told U.S. authorities that Saddam Hussein had offered to train two al Qaeda operatives in the use of "chemical or biological weapons." He is talking about evidence extracted in Egypt from senior al Qaeda figure Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who was captured in 2001 and rendered to Egypt by the U.S. government. Al-Libi later recants his testimony, saying it was extracted under torture.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Captured
In March 2003, as U.S. aerial bombardment begins in Iraq, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is captured in Pakistan. The self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed is held for three and a half years by the CIA in an undisclosed location (thought to be Poland) before eventually being transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Some U.S. intelligence analysts question the legitimacy of some of his confessions and the number of high-profile acts of terror he claims to have planned or carried out. According to a recent New Yorker report, "Colonel Dwight Sullivan, the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes, called his serial confessions 'a textbook example of why we shouldn’t allow coercive methods.'"
Also, what constitutes torture and legal detention has set off months of legal argument between State Department, Department of Justice and White House lawyers. The State Department, and some in the U.S. military, are concerned that treating most captured terrorist suspects outside the Geneva Conventions and creating new definitions of what constitutes torture will set a dangerous precedent for the treatment of captured U.S. soldiers, and that recent legal opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel will not protect high U.S. officials from being prosecuted for war crimes.
January 23, 2004
CIA Nabs Wrong Man
Khaled el-Masri, a German national of Lebanese origin, is struggling to find work as a car salesman in his hometown of Ulm, Germany. He would later report that his marriage was also in trouble. In December 2003, he buys a bus ticket to Macedonia for a brief vacation. He is held at the border crossing between Serbia and Macedonia and accused of being a terrorist, even though throughout his ordeal no one makes any specific accusation. He is held for three weeks in a hotel room in Skopje, where he says he was interrogated and beaten. After this, he is drugged and loaded onto a CIA Boeing 737 bound for Kabul, Afghanistan. He spends four months in solitary confinement at the CIA-run "Salt Pit" prison. In May 2004, CIA director George Tenet orders his release. The CIA refuses to make a public comment, but sources confirm that it was a case of mistaken identity: They had nabbed the wrong man. Later, the ACLU files a lawsuit on behalf of el-Masri against George Tenet and the CIA. But in May 2007, a U.S. Federal Appeals Court rejects the case on the grounds of "state secrets." And on October 9, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively upholds that decision by refusing to hear the case.
Read Part 3: The Legacy of Abu Ghraib -- A moral and constitutional struggle >>