Extraordinary Rendition

Timeline, part one, the early days of rendition

U.S. Policy and Intelligence in the War on Terror
Follow a chronology of changes in U.S. intelligence operations and some key events in the government's controversial rendition program.


Rendition, the practice of capturing and transporting someone to another country without legal extradition, is not a new practice. It has been used by U.S. law enforcement for decades to bring wanted suspects back to face trial in the U.S., rather than to a foreign country. In his book Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program, investigative journalist Stephen Grey reports that the earliest known rendition by the U.S. was in 1883 when Frederick Ker was kidnapped in Peru by the Pinkerton Detective Agency and rendered back to Chicago to face trial for grand larceny. The tactic was endorsed by the Supreme Court (see Ker vs Illinois). Until 9/11, reports Grey, the FBI published an annual summary of what they called "irregular renditions." Snatch operations may occasionally have broken local laws, Grey says, but ultimately the suspect was brought to court to face a judge and jury.

October 1994
U.N. Convention Against Torture

The United Nations Convention Against Torture goes into force in the United States. The U.N. convention, signed a decade earlier, bans the transfer of a prisoner to another country where there are "substantial grounds" that he may face torture. The U.S. Congress, in ratifying the treaty, orders that "substantial grounds" are defined as "more likely than not" that the prisoner will be tortured. The convention potentially makes renditions to other countries a crime under U.S. law.

August 1995
The CIA's Rendition Program

michael scheuer

Under President Clinton, the CIA launches a systematic covert program of "extraordinary" rendition, the transfer of suspected Islamist terrorists to foreign countries. The Clinton administration is responding to fears of a growing transnational threat from Osama bin Laden and other well-organized Sunni extremists in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Egypt.

Among this program's creators is CIA veteran Michael Scheuer, chief of what becomes the Bin Laden Unit from August 1995 to June 1999. According to Scheuer, the rendition program's goal is to take people off the streets who are planning or have been involved in attacks on the U.S. and its allies, and to seize documents in their possession when arrested. In his book Ghost Plane, Stephen Grey, who has been investigating the CIA's secret rendition program for four years, reports that President Clinton orders that, in addition to bringing some terrorists to face trial in the U.S., others should be sent to foreign countries where they are wanted for a crime. To comply with the provisions of the Convention Against Torture, the CIA is ordered to get assurances from destination countries that suspects will not be tortured. "At the minimum," Grey says, "countries with the very worst human rights records (say, Syria) were off-limits at first." Another key difference, he adds, "Renditions before the Bush administration were carried out primarily to disrupt terrorist activity, not to gather intelligence or to interrogate individuals."

Rendition Agreement Between the U.S. and Egypt


Egypt, a close Middle Eastern ally and the second largest recipient of U.S. regional aid (after Israel), becomes the first partner in the extraordinary rendition program in the mid-1990s. The country is dealing with a wave of terrorist attacks led by radical groups such as Gama'a al-Islamiyya. The CIA wants to help prevent terrorism in Egypt but also is hoping to use rendition to target an expanding network of Islamist militants, many of them Egyptian nationals, who are threatening to attack U.S. interests across the globe. The network later calls itself Al Qaeda.

September 22, 1995
The first Extraordinary Rendition

In Ghost Plane, Stephen Grey writes that extraordinary rendition by the CIA began as a systematic tactic on September 22, 1995, with the capture of Egyptian Abu Talal al-Qasimi, in Croatia, and his transfer to Egypt where he was executed. The term "extraordinary rendition" is never an official CIA term, but it comes to define the CIA's program of snatching terrorist suspects abroad and transferring them without legal process to a third country for detention and frequent interrogation.

August 1996
Osama Bin Laden Declares War

Osama Bin Laden Poster

The al Qaeda leader releases a fatwa declaring that he is at war with the United States. (Read the text of his statement on the NewsHour's Web site.)

August 1996
The War Crimes Act of 1996


The passage of the War Crimes Act allows U.S. federal courts to prosecute grave war crimes like "willful killing", "torture", "inhuman treatment", "unlawful deportation or transfer," and other breaches of the Geneva Conventions. This new law applies whether these acts are committed "inside or outside the United States."

The implications of the Act are profound. After war begins in Afghanistan in late 2001, the then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales begins a secret debate among administration lawyers about how to order the most effective interrogation of hundreds of prisoners captured around the world while avoiding prosecutions of the U.S. soldiers and officials involved for breach of the War Crimes Act.

August 1998
Bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania

A covert CIA rendition in Eastern Europe first exposed in The Wall Street Journal, is the antecedent to the bloody bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. The CIA targets a cell of Egyptian militants working inside Albania who have been in touch with bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. With Egyptian help, the group is broken up, one member is killed, while others are rendered to Cairo where they are tortured, and two later hung. According to Stephen Grey, the events in Albania and further disruption in neighboring Bulgaria mark the largest case of CIA rendition prior to the September 11 attacks.

Soon after the operation, al-Zawahiri responds with a public statement, threatening retribution for the Albanian incident. Three days later, the U.S. Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies are blown up, killing 257 people, including 12 U.S. nationals, and injuring more than 5,000 people. Despite al-Zawahiri’s attempt to link the renditions and the attacks, an FBI investigation of the bombings reveals they have been many years in the planning.

Read Part 2: Counterterrorism After 9/11 - The high cost of security >>