PBS Frontline/World: 'Extraordinary Rendition'

Stephen Grey
Stephen Grey
Stephen Grey
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; 11:00 AM

Frontline/World correspondent Stephen Grey was online Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film, "Extraordinary Rendition," an international investigation of the United States government's controversial, extralegal detention and interrogation program. The film includes the voices of several CIA "ghost prisoners" speaking for the first time on U.S. television.

" Extraordinary Rendition" airs Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Grey is a former editor of the Sunday Times of London's investigations unit. In May 2004 in the New Statesman and then in November 2004 in the Sunday Times, he broke the world exclusive story of the flight logs and secret fleet of aircraft used by the CIA for rendition. Since then, Grey has contributed several front page news articles to the New York Times about rendition and security issues, and contributed on the subject to Newsweek and CBS's "60 Minutes." His book on the subject, " Ghost Plane," was published in October 2006.


Stephen Grey: Good morning from San Francisco where I came to launch the film. Thanks for having me on this forum.

FYI: If you missed the show, the full video will be posted in the next couple of days on the Frontline/World Web site.

There is also plenty of other materials and interviews posted there; and other things I've written on the subject at my Web site.


Washington: I've heard recently they renditioned people to Egypt and also to Syria. Is that the same Syria they condemned Nancy Pelosi for visiting? Why would President Bashar al-Assad want anything to do with that? Is that why Condi is meeting with him?

Stephen Grey: Syria appears to have been a particular target for rendition until around 2003 (when the U.S. and Syria fell out over the Iraq war). Even before that date, the U.S. was condemning the Syrian regime in strong terms for its human rights abuses.

Aside from the well-publicized case of Maher Arar (the Canadian sent in 2002 to Damascus from New York, tortured, and later declared innocent by an official Canadian inquiry), I documented a total of eight prisoners held with him in the notorious Palestine Branch interrogation center (which has the cells like graves). They included Mohamed Haydar Zammar, a German who was one of the most important prisoners in U.S. hands when he was arrested in Morocco in late 2001 (he was one of the recruiters of the Sept. 11 Hamburg cell). According to a German official document, the CIA told the Germans they were responsible for his rendition from Morocco to Syria. Zammar never has been seen since, although fellow prisoners in the Palestine Branch heard him being beaten.


Washington: Sir, the CIA rendition program was started under Bill Clinton. This is something that just gets lost in all this discussion. I hope your film reflects that.

Stephen Grey: Yes, we made that clear.

It's an important legal point because it means that when the U.S. came to Sept. 11, they already had extensive experience in how these prisoners would be treated when rendered to places like Egypt. The biggest rendition was in the summer of 1998 (four from Albania, and one from Bulgaria). Of those rendered, two were hanged without trial. All alleged very serious torture; it was documented in court.


Raleigh, N.C.: I didn't see your film yesterday, though it should be on my DVR. My question is, how long does it take the families of those who have been grabbed to find out what has happened? I'm not arguing that some of these people aren't dangerous, I just think it would be really frightening for a family member to just disappear, leaving no way to find out what happened. Is that the way this program is operating?

Stephen Grey: (You can catch the program online, see above.)

That's a key question. For prisoners held in U.S. custody (CIA or military), families are getting to hear generally when the Red Cross gets access. For those held in CIA "black sites" there was no Red Cross access, so many heard when they were transferred to military custody (Bagram or Guantanamo). This took years in many cases.

The situation for those rendered to places like Egypt is sporadic. In Egypt a prisoner generally is taken for interrogation, which can last up to a year (more in certain cases). During that period he is not officially a prisoner and has no access to family visits or lawyers or anything, so he is very much a disappeared person. After that point he may be transferred to a prison and, even without being charged, he finally may be able to notify his family and receive visitors. But there are plenty of examples of prisoners who really have disappeared completely once rendered. The Red Cross works hard to find them in foreign jails and try to get word to their families.


Rockville, Md.: All of this seems to indicate a greater degree of cooperation between the security/intelligence services of the world. How much do they cooperate, and will this ever spill over to the political arena? Is this a line of communications that is hidden and ignored? What does it mean to the diplomats, and to the United Nations?

Stephen Grey: Interesting point: We have a great separation in the U.S. and U.K. between our intelligence and diplomatic channels, but in the Arab world the intelligence agencies are key power-brokers in the regime. Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, has played a key role in the Mideast peace process, is a key diplomatic channel to President Mubarak, and also is the CIA's key partner in programs like rendition.

The consequence -- which diplomats described to me also in Syria -- is that these regimes may seek some political concessions in return for some of the secret cooperation they are giving. In other words, some of this secret work can undercut the work that regular diplomats are doing to put pressure on these regimes regarding human rights, sponsorship of terrorism (in the Syrian case), etc.


Boston: How serious is the possibility of individual CIA or FBI interrogators and/or Bush administration officials who ordered the rendition and waterboarding/other torture tactics being brought up on criminal charges? Who are the key players who would need to stand up and say that not only were the actions morally wrong (never mind tactically and strategically counterproductive) but that they were illegal as well? Where would those charges be brought? How worried about this scenario is the Bush administration?

Stephen Grey: Good morning. U.S. law is quite definitive on the subject of torture; there is no need to consider some international forum. While what constitutes torture is defined only loosely, there is no doubt that the sort of methods described in countries like Egypt and Syria (electric shocks, physical beatings, mock burials, extreme stress positions, and solitary confinement in tiny spaces for weeks on end) would constitute torture under U.S. law. It's illegal to send someone to another country if there's a high likelihood they will be tortured. Given that so many people involved the CIA program say they knew those rendered would be tortured, there's every possibility this was in breach of the law. But such a prosecution would need to be instituted the Department of Justice. There is no procedure for a victim of torture to launch his own criminal complaint. So it's essentially a political matter as to whether any potential crimes here could be prosecuted.


Wake Forest, N.C.: Oh come on. Extralegal? Sounds like Rice with her equivocation about Musharraf's actions -- extraconstitutional she calls it. Why don't you call it what it is -- illegal, unlawful, against everything America was founded on. Just come out and say it! Quit beating around the bush (no pun intended).

Stephen Grey: Well as they say on Fox News, we report, you decide!

I've tried to set out what the law says, as far as a non-lawyer can.


Bethesda, Md.: Thanks for doing this chat. I realize you don't speak for PBS, much less their Web site people, but the link to watch the show online seems to be bad (generates a "no page" error). Have you gotten any feedback on this?

Stephen Grey: I'm getting on them right now on this and will report back shortly...


Wilmington, N.C.: Are there aspects of the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition activities that are unprecedented?

Stephen Grey: After Sept. 11, the numbers rendered into secret detention and foreign countries went beyond a few dozen into the hundreds. It wasn't just the CIA involved but the military. Pakistan alone reported handing more than 500-plus people to the U.S. Gen Hayden reports what you could add up to around 150 people -- "midrange" two figures -- in addition to just under 100 in CIA black sites (some of whom were rendered to foreign countries after their CIA detention). I think though he is choosing words carefully to underplay the numbers. The number who have disappeared -- who were arrested but have not appeared at Guantanamo -- certainly run into many hundreds.

Under Clinton, the focus of rendition was on disruption, from what I have gleaned -- it was focused on individuals who were wanted for some crime in the target country; the destination countries were also limited (Jordan and Egypt in the main.)

After Sept. 11, as I said, the numbers expanded dramatically, the destinations now included countries like Syria, Uzbekistan, Morocco and even Libya.

And you can see rendition specifically used after Sept. 11 for the purpose of outsourcing important prisoners for interrogation (e.g. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda camp commander who was sent to Egypt; Mohamed Zammar a Sept. 11 recruiter who was sent to Syria; and Benyam Mohammed, an alleged co-conspirator to Jose Padilla, who was sent to Morocco).


Freising, Germany: After all the work and effort that you've put into your investigation on the rendition program, what was your impression of effectiveness of the program versus moral disadvantages? In other words, by sending terrorist suspects to foreign countries to be tortured, was the reliable information obtained worth besmirching the reputation of the people involved?

Stephen Grey: The moral disadvantages are clear -- complicity if not direct involvement in torture.

If you catch the right person, rendition does achieve the disruption of a terrorist cell and may stop a terror plot. But you could achieve the same result by arresting a prisoner and holding them through legal means -- putting them up before a court of law.

Methods like "enhanced" interrogations in CIA black sites and intelligence from prisoners rendered to foreign countries have provided intelligence that has no doubt saved lives, although the specifics are few and far between.

But I think as Jane Mayer reported in her piece on the black sites in the New Yorker in the New Yorker, the smart question is whether the same or better results could equally have been achieved without resorting to some kind of "extra-legal" process. Certainly there are some very experienced interrogators who have persuaded some very important terrorists to talk who will tell you that this all can be done legally...

And finally I should add that intelligence obtained after rendition may have saved lives, but also on occasion has cost thousands of lives. When Al Libi was sent to Egypt for "debriefing" (to quote George Tenet), he provided false intelligence that helped take the country to war in Iraq (see my post on this yesterday).

By the way -- on all these posts I should say I am speaking in a personal capacity and not representing any views of PBS or Frontline.


Butte, Mont.: Once Clinton/Reno started interdicting Haitians and Dominicans on the high seas, taking them to the Naval base in Cuba, the country has recognized that Constitutional protections only attach to persons reaching U.S. soil. That would not include a U.S.-flagged vessel. By virtue of some of the subjects not being military combatants wearing their country's uniform, they appear to have presented themselves as nonmilitary combatants who had not reached U.S. soil. In a way, it's like a U.S. reporter claiming the First Amendment's safeguards in a Middle Eastern country. Please explain the nexus that brings U.S. Constitutional safeguards to a nonmilitary, non-U.S. citizen who never has reached our soil?

Stephen Grey: You're taking me into deep waters of legal argument that I don't think I can respond too in this forum without a little more reflection. The Supreme Court appears, however, to think that those who reached Guantanamo do have basic Constitutional protections, such as habeas corpus. They also ruled last year that the basic protections of the common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions also apply to any kind of prisoner, regardless of whether he is an illegal combatant or not.

I should point out that when you say "by virtue of some of the subjects not being military combatants wearing their country's uniform," you're missing the point that most of those arrested as terror suspects, including the majority of those at Guantanamo, were not arrested on any kind of battlefield, but rather were picked up in arrest operations. You can't expect people to wear military uniforms while they lie asleep in their beds when the police raid. Nor do many lawyers abroad accept that what we have here is an international armed conflict. The U.S. is quite unique in regarding terrorism within a law of war context. So it is quite an extreme reading of the law to argue that a terror suspect is committing some kind of war crime by walking around, say Karachi, without wearing a uniform.


Boston: To follow up, I assumed that no U.S. prosecution would occur just to the points you made. So the question goes back to what key international actors would need to stand up and initiate a process? How worried is the Bush administration about that outcome?

Stephen Grey: I don't think the administration hasn't got to worry too much about international actors. The U.S. doesn't accept jurisdiction in the Hague. It must be some concern there are arrest warrants out for CIA operatives in both Germany and Italy -- that has certainly disrupted activities in Europe -- but it's no more than a hiccup.

I should have thought the main concern to the administration would be political. Certainly Congress if it wanted to and if this was the right thing to do (I'm not an advocate here) could get action and force the Department of Justice to investigate.


San Francisco: We know that, once a human reaches U.S. soil, all Constitutional protections attach. Were a non-human alien to reach U.S. soil, is it such a stretch to suggest that such a "thing" would have no Constitutional protections? This example may illustrate two Constitutional realities: By virtue of not being a member of any nation's military, a terrorist forfeits certain legal protections and, by virtue of not reaching U.S. soil, he may have no standing to ask for Constitutional protections. What protections would you extend to a non-human alien that arrived on U.S. soil?

Stephen Grey: I'm sticking to humans for now ... :-)


But such a prosecution would need to be instituted the Department of Justice.: Doesn't these speak volumes to Mukasey's fudging on waterboarding may or may not be torture? Based on this response I have no faith there will be any prosecutions filed for torture. This position is a national disgrace and embarrassment. Any American detained by another nation can be subjected to torture and the international community will look the other way.

Stephen Grey: Key point about waterboading and other CIA enhanced techniques is that they were not some rogue operation. (Not the "night shift" at Abu Ghraib, as Rumsfeld used to call it). Everything, including the individual techniques, were signed off at the White House. Apart from the fact that the use of waterboarding is so striking (even if used only on a handful occasions, which I think is the case, it does say something to have used a technique popular with the likes of the Khmer Rouge), I think the chain of command issue is partly why the Democrats see this one is worth homing in on.


Minneapolis: I read your fascinating post on al-Libi yesterday. The CIA recalled the reporting based on his earlier interrogations, but Tenet in his book tries to push back against that, suggesting that maybe al-Libi's recantation itself was false. Have you seen the CIA memos on that, beyond what is cited in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, and how credible is Tenet's claim that maybe the original information from his torture was credible?

Stephen Grey: I haven't seen any further CIA traffic beyond that reported in the Senate report, which struck me as very explosive.

I would only mention that I think the Senate committee did examine all the evidence in a comprehensive way and they appeared to regard al Libi's claim as definitively disproved.

Nevertheless, all this certainly highlights the degree of uncertainty thrown up when you have intelligence obtained in this way.

With so much reporting around, the challenge for intelligence gatherers is not so much to acquire more volume but more credibility.


Stephen Grey: Thanks for having me today. I really appreciate all the questions and sorry that, because of the number, I haven't got to respond to everyone.

PBS tells me they still are improving the Web site (so sorry for a few technical issues right now) but the full video should be up and running and posted on the site by the end of the day.

This is correct direct link to the program.


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