Extraordinary Rendition

Timeline, part three

Spring 2004
Abu Ghraib Abuse

Photographs taken by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the fall of 2003 begin to surface in the media. They show disturbing scenes of detainee abuse. The U.S. and international outcry pushes the Justice Department to take a new look at the definition of torture outlined in the 2002 "Torture Memo," and to adopt stronger language prohibiting physical abuse during interrogations. A few months before the Abu Ghraib scandal hits, an Iraqi man dies in U.S. custody at the facility. Manadel al-Jamadi is suspected in the bombings of Red Cross facilities in Baghdad. He is handed over to CIA officers and taken to Abu Ghraib in the early morning hours of November 4, 2003. A few hours later, he is pronounced dead. A former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City states that al-Jamadi died as a result of the position he was hung in and broken ribs, "asphyxia is what he died from -- as in a crucifixion."

(For more on Abu Ghraib, follow the paper trail of torture memos, Defense Department investigations into prisoner abuse, and read human rights reports on FRONTLINE’s The Torture Question.)

May 2004
Rumsfeld's Secret Directive

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

The New Yorker publishes a detailed account of how the Defense Department under Secretary Rumsfeld encouraged "physical coercion and sexual humiliation" of prisoners. Author Seymour Hersh writes, “The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focused on the hunt for al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld's decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.” Members of the so-called "black" special-access program would be allowed to interrogate suspects on the spot, using force if necessary, at secret CIA detention centers around the world and outside of normal jurisdiction. At the end of 2004, a new Justice Department memo, written by Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin, defines torture more broadly and provides clearer guidelines on what interrogation techniques the administration considers to be illegal. But there is no clarification over whether the treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees will come under the protections of the Geneva Conventions or the War Crimes Act.

February 2005
Waterboarding Endorsed

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

After rancorous dissent among administration lawyers in late 2004, the Justice Department declares that torture is "abhorrent," and begins to retreat from a position of giving the president almost unlimited presidential power to authorize extreme interrogation techniques. But by early 2005, a secret legal opinion approved by new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales endorses the harshest interrogation methods used yet by the CIA. The existence of the memo is first reported in October 2007 in The New York Times. The paper reports that according to officials briefed on the opinion, it gave "explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures." In the same month U.S. Representative Edward Markey introduces a bill to ban extraordinary rendition. (The Syrian national Maher Arar, rendered by the U.S. to Syria for torture in 2002, is a former constituent of Markey’s.) After failing to be considered, the bill is reintroduced in March 2007.

Spring 2005
Reports of "black sites" in Europe

Mohammed Bashmilah
Mohammed Bashmilah

Mohammed Bashmilah becomes one of the few people released from a secret CIA detention facility able to speak about the experience. The Yemeni citizen had been rendered by U.S. intelligence on his arrival in Jordan from Indonesia, where he ran a business. From Jordan, he was transferred to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, and questioned about suspected terrorist activities. Protesting his innocence, he attempted suicide and went on a hunger strike. In April 2004, Bashmilah was transferred from Afghanistan to a secret CIA prison. The site is not confirmed, but it is thought to be in Poland. After approximately a year at the black site, he was released back to Yemen. In an interview in 2006 with reporter Stephen Grey, he recalls having no idea where he was. "I didn’t know where I was, except in a prison. I didn’t see any person, except the interrogators and the guards. I didn’t see the sun or the air. I didn’t see anything of nature for as long as I was in this prison." In November, veteran Washington Post journalist, Dana Priest, reports that the CIA has been detaining and interrogating some of its most valuable al Qaeda captives at secret sites in Eastern Europe, which are part of a larger "covert prison system" set up by the agency in 2001. According to Priest, the prison network includes sites in Thailand, Afghanistan, countries in Eastern Europe (later identified as Poland and Romania) and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif states publicly that the U.S. has transferred some 60 to 70 suspects to Egypt. In December, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describes rendition as a "vital tool" against global terrorism. She makes the remarks before departing for Europe, where there’s been heavy criticism over news of covert CIA prisons on European soil. As pressure mounts to improve the U.S. government’s record on the treatment of suspected terrorists, Bush finally signs a bill passed by Congress earlier in the year. The sticking point has been an amendment introduced by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) outlawing the "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of detainees. Bush signs the bill but issues a signing statement saying that the measure will be implemented at his discretion as Commander in Chief.

May 3, 2006
Al Qaeda and Human Rights

A verdict is finally reached in the only U.S. criminal trial of a suspect in the 9/11 attacks. Moussaoui, who admits to being the “20th hijacker,” is sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado. The Washington Post reports that Zacarias Moussaoui’s case demonstrates that a complex terrorism trial can be conducted in the regular U.S. criminal justice system. In an important legal decision in the case of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld in June, the Supreme Court rules that using military commissions to try terrorist suspects violates both U.S. military law and the Geneva Conventions. In the same decision, the court rules that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions does apply to the conflict with al Qaeda. The release of a Senate Select Committee report on pre-war intelligence in September reveals that many senior analysts were deeply skeptical about U.S. intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda and about claims that the Iraqi leader was helping bin Laden obtain weapons of mass destruction -- both later used to justify the war in Iraq. One declassified cable, sent by CIA officers from Kabul in February 2004, a full year before President Bush began stating that the United States does not send people to be tortured, shows that evidence obtained from suspected al Qaeda member Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi was based on a confession obtained under torture in Egypt.

On al-Libi’s interrogation, the report says: “According to al-Libi, the foreign government service ‘stated that the next topic was al-Qa'ida's connections with Iraq. . . . This was a subject about which he said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story." Al-Libi indicated that his interrogators did not like his responses and then "placed him in a small box approximately 50cm X 50cm." He claimed he was held in the box for approximately 17 hours. When he was let out of the box, al-Libi claims that he was given a last opportunity to "tell the truth." When al-Libi did not satisfy the interrogator, al-Libi claimed that "he was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and he fell on his back." Al-Libi told CIA debriefers that he then "was punched for 15 minutes." -- sourced to CIA operational cable February 5, 2004.

September 2006
Bush Says "Emptying Out" Secret Prisons

President George W. Bush

President Bush announces that 14 detainees held in secret CIA prisons have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay and into the custody of the U.S. military. The president says that the International Committee of the Red Cross will be granted admission to see the 14 men, adding that "those charged with crimes will be given access to attorneys who will help them prepare their defense, and they will be presumed innocent.” Detainees that are transferred include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi is not among those transferred. A month later, Congress passes the Military Commissions Act, which will give detainees the right to a military trial, allow the CIA to continue its existing interrogation program, and provide legal protections for military and intelligence personnel against lawsuits filed by detainees. Speaking at the signing President Bush says, "The Military Commissions Act of 2006 is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the War on Terror." The ACLU claims that Congress has given “the president absolute power to designate enemy combatants, and to set his own definitions for torture.”

February 2007
Guantanamo Lawsuits Dismissed


Using the Military Commissions Act, a federal appeals court throws out dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of Guantanamo detainees who are seeking a writ of habeas corpus. The ruling means detainees will be tried before military tribunals where the accused will bear the burden of proof of innocence; and will not have access to all the evidence brought against him, and where evidence gained using coercive methods may be submitted. In April, the Supreme Court refuses to hear an appeal, which has the effect of upholding the earlier decision. But in June, the court reverses course, and decides to review whether detainees at Guantanamo may go to federal court to challenge their indefinite detentions. The court is due to hear the cases this fall. In March, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind 9/11, attends his combat status review tribunal at Guantanamo Bay where he claims responsibility for participation in 31 terror plots. According to his testimony released by the Pentagon, he tells U.S. officials, “I was responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z … I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl.” He also claims responsibility for a foiled plot to blow up an airline by “shoebomber” Richard Reid, the nightclub bombings in Bali, and a number of failed plans to assassinate U.S. presidents, including President Clinton. At the hearing Mohammed also claims he has been tortured and his children abused while in detention.

Spring 2007
Mass Renditions in Africa

Flight Manifest from Africa Express flight
Flight Manifest from Africa Express flight

Although the focus of the war on terror has been on the Middle East and Asia, the U.S. returns to its allies in the Horn of Africa to hunt down Islamic militants. According to recent reports by the Associated Press and FRONTLINE/World’s own investigation, dozens of terrorism suspects have been rendered this year in East Africa. The suspects, caught fleeing war-torn Somalia into neighboring Kenya, are rendered on to Ethiopia. There, they are held in secret prisons in the capital, Addis Ababa, without charge or access to counsel or their families. The detainees include women and children who are the family members of terror suspects. In this new wave of renditions, the prisoners are transported on Kenyan and Ethiopian planes, not by the CIA. However, reports from prisoners state that they have been interrogated by U.S. agents in Addis Ababa, raising the question of whether the United States is directly involved in the renditions. Among the prisoners are Halima Badrundine Hussein, the wife of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (wanted by the U.S. for the 1998 African embassy bombings) and their three children; and Daniel Joseph Maldonado, an American citizen arrested in Kenya in January 2007 and handed over to U.S. authorities. In April 2007, Maldonado pleads guilty to receiving training from a foreign terrorist organization in return for the second charge of “conspiring to use an explosive device outside the United States” being dropped. Maldonado is sentenced to 10 years in a U.S. federal prison (Houston Federal Detention Center). His American-born wife, Umm Muhammad, dies while fleeing Somalia.

(Read Maldonado’s statement.)

April 2007
House Hearings on Rendition

House Hearings

At a provocative House hearing, CIA veteran Michael Scheuer defends the progam as the most "effective counterterrorism" operation ever conducted by U.S. Watch Video >>

Two House Foreign Affairs committees hold a joint hearing in April on the legality of extraordinary renditions, spurred by heavy criticism of the program in Europe. During the provocative hearing, Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt (D), remarks, “renditions not only appear to violate our obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture and other international treaties, but they have undermined our very commitment to fundamental American values.” In the same hearing the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, defends the rendition program saying it has been “the single most effective counterterrorism operation ever conducted by the United States government” and has kept Americans safer. In July, Senator Joseph Biden (D) introduces a bill to "prohibit extraterritorial detention and rendition."

June 2007
Council of Europe Report

Senator Dick Marty
Senator Dick Marty

The Council of Europe, an official human rights watchdog, has been investigating the alleged illegal transport of prisoners and secret detentions in EU member states. Swiss Senator Dick Marty, the man appointed to lead the investigation, the rapporteur, releases a number of reports on the issue. In the latest report, released in June 2007, he declares, "It is now established with a high degree of probability that secret detention centers operated by the CIA…existed for some years in Poland and Romania." The report also names a number of European countries that have cooperated with the U.S. in extraordinary rendition, including the UK, Italy and Germany. Romania and Poland come under particularly harsh criticism for refusing to cooperate with the EU parliament’s investigation. Visit the Council of Europe's Web page for all related documents to the investigation.

September 7, 2007
CIA Head Defends Rendition

In an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, CIA Director Michael Hayden says the CIA has detained “fewer than 100” people at proxy detention centers abroad since the capture of Abu Zubaydah in 2002, and even fewer prisoners have been secretly transferred to or from foreign governments. Taking questions from politicians, human rights activists and journalists, Hayden responds that renditions by the CIA have been "conducted lawfully, responsibly, and with a clear and simple purpose: to get terrorists off the streets and gain intelligence on those still at large.” He also says that "more than 70 percent of the human intelligence reporting used" in the July National Intelligence Estimate has come from the interrogation of detainees. In October, Khaled el-Masri, the German citizen who was rendered by the CIA to a black site in Afghanistan loses his final attempt to seek legal redress. His case, brought by the ACLU, is declined by the Supreme Court without comment. Previous hearings of el-Masri’s case in lower courts were denied on the grounds that it could expose state secrets. In a statement about his situation, el-Masri says, ”I have come to America seeking three things: an acknowledgement that the United States government is responsible for kidnapping, abusing and rendering me to a CIA “black site” prison; an explanation as to why I was singled out for this treatment; and an apology, because I am an innocent man who has never been charged with any crime."

Late 2007
Guantanamo’s Future and CIA on Trial

The U.S. administration in early November is still weighing up options for how to bring to trial the hundreds of terror suspects currently held at Guantanamo, and to find a way to continue to hold others indefinitely thought too dangerous to release. The internal debate comes ahead of a crucial hearing before the Supreme Court due in early December, in which detainees at Guantanamo are to argue their rights of "habeas corpus.” According to an October 31st report in The New York Times, among the options under review include either the transfer of detainees from Cuba to U.S. soil to face trial before civilian judges, or a reform of the administrative tribunals used to designate the prisoners as "enemy combatants." The latter proposal could include providing prisoners with legal representation before the tribunals -- a right so far denied to detainees. Also in early November, as Congress continues to review President Bush's nominee for Attorney General, Michael B. Mukasey over his legal interpretation of torture, attention has turned to whether the CIA's use of the technique of “waterboarding'” amounts to illegal torture. An article in Small Wars Journal by an adviser to U.S. Army Special Forces, Malcolm Nance, who claims to have witnessed hundreds of waterboardings carried out as part of torture-resistance training for U.S. soldiers, says that the technique has been mis-described in the media. Nance says waterboarding is not "simulated drowning but a controlled form of actual drowning that was abhorrent to witness.” He explains that "since the lungs are actually filling with water,” it is not a simulation but “slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration. When done right, it is controlled death."

Meanwhile in Milan, Italy, the trial of 25 alleged CIA agents for the rendition to Cairo of an Islamic preacher, Abu Omar, is postponed until the spring of 2008. The delay follows an appeal to the country's constitutional court by the Italian government, which has argued that the investigation into the rendition by Milan prosecutors has violated state secrecy laws.