• February 12, 2007
  • 27 minutes read

Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program

Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program

British journalist Stephen Grey helped expose the Bush administration’s secret CIA rendition flights. He joins us to talk about his new book, “Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program.” [includes rush transcript]


Joining me now in our New York studio is the British journalist who has helped expose the Bush administration’s secret CIA rendition flights. Stephen Grey has just published a new book called “Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program.” The book covers the case of Maher Arar as well as dozens of other men who have been disappeared by the CIA and U.S. military.

Stephen Grey. An award-winning investigative journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly and many other publications. He first exposed the secret rendition program back in 2004. His new book is “Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program.”



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Joining us right now in our firehouse studio is the British journalist who helped expose the Bush administration’s secret CIA rendition flights. Stephen Grey has just published a new book. It’s called Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. The book covers the case of Maher Arar, as well as dozens of other men who have been disappeared by the CIA and U.S. military. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: How did you first learn about these renditions?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, funnily enough, I was first told about renditions by a man who became the head of the CIA, Porter Goss. He was then a congressman and head of the House Intelligence Committee. And he told me — I asked him whether they would find a way of capturing bin Laden, and he said, “Oh, this is called rendition. Do you know about this?” And I said, “No, I have not heard of it.” He said, “It’s a way of bringing people to a kind of justice.” And that really set me on the trail to uncover this whole network of prisoner detention in secret.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, where did you go from there?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, when the Guantanamo Bay camp was opened up in Cuba, and we saw all those images of those prisoners there, I asked about this, and some people who are close to the CIA told me, “Look, this is the press release. This is what the they want you to see. This is where they’re taking the cameras. But you should know there’s a much wider system of detention, of camps around the world where people are being taken.” And that really inspired me to try and get behind that and find out where they all were and what was happening to them.

And in fact, quite soon afterwards — well, a few months — actually a year later, when Maher Arar was first released, he was one of the first victims of the rendition program to come out. And he described so compellingly what happened to him and how he was taken in this Gulfstream jet, this executive jet, which seemed bizarre, flown across the Atlantic from America to Syria, and described the terrible torture that he faced. That also quite inspired me to sort of find out what happened to everyone else. And, as you know, that use of these plans proved to be quite a clue as to how we could unlock this whole scandal.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you actually were able to pinpoint the plane that Maher Arar was put on when he was sent to Syria?

STEPHEN GREY: That’s right. I mean, I was able to find that actually the movements of these private jets, probably through some errors by the agency and others involved, were quite easy to track around the world. So I found out not only his plane, but a total of about 20 different planes used by the CIA and allied agencies to move people around the world. I got thousands of flight plans of these planes. What was important was you had people like Maher Arar and others coming out and making these statements of rendition: “I was sent to Egypt, Morocco, Syria.” And you wondered, you know, should you believe these people? They’re accused of being terrorists, etc. You wanted to find out some way of verifying their statement. And the importance of these planes was, they allowed us to confirm precisely that exactly what they said had happened was true.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us, what was the company that owned the plane? What was the plane? How did it work?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, one of the main companies that is being used for these renditions is called Aero Contractors. It’s a company based in North Carolina


STEPHEN GREY: That’s right, yeah. And this is a company that is at the center of the CIA’s aviation network. I was initially wondering whether it was just a normal private company that perhaps had a contract with the CIA. As we dug into it more deeply, we discovered it actually was the CIA, and I eventually found some pilots who used to work there, who described how they got their job working for Aero Contractors by being interviewed by the CIA.

There was an advertisement. There were adverts from the CIA saying, you know, we need all these kind of people, including pilots. And they replied to those jobs. They got vetted by the CIA. They got put on what they called “the box,” the polygraph, in a hotel not far from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Finally, they were taken to Langley and provided with a series of cover identities, false aviation licenses, false credit cards, false driving licenses by the CIA. Funny enough, actually, one of them involved said that he was given a form to sign when he joined the CIA, saying, “I will never claim I’m from the CIA. I’ll never say I’m a CIA employee.” He signed the form, but the CIA kept all the copies. But he knew who he was working for, and they all spent many years working with the CIA around the world. It’s definitively a CIA operation.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did they fly Maher Arar out of from the New York area?

STEPHEN GREY: Yeah, he was flown out of the local airport here in New Jersey, Teterboro, picked up there. There was an FBI involvement in that particular operation, because it came out of New York, the U.S. airspace. So it wasn’t a sort of typical rendition. My understanding is the CIA took over. He was flown from Teterboro to Dulles Airport, where a new team took over. And then he was flown from there to — via Athens — sorry, via Rome in Italy, and then the plane then landed in Jordan. At that point, I think, the CIA took over.

He was then taken — he was beaten in Jordan, and then he was driven over the border into Syria to this place. You’ve mentioned the Palestine Branch. It’s one of the worst interrogation centers in the world. And what I found that what I’ve — in this book, in researching this book, that when he got there, he wasn’t the only person that had been sent there by the United States. Up to seven other prisoners were sitting in these same cells about the size of graves, three-foot wide, six-foot wide. And up to seven other prisoners there at the time had all been sent there by the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Are they still there?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, some them are. I mean, the whole story of this rendition program is that there are only a few people who have emerged to tell their stories, and so many others have disappeared completely. We don’t know where they are. There’s no accountability as to what’s happened to them.

There was one man connected with the Hamburg cell, probably a suspected terrorist who was sent there in December 2001. He’s quite a big man. He couldn’t even fit in the cell. And he’s been held there for over a year in this tiny solitary cell, beaten and beaten constantly and never brought to trial. So, although people say that he’s a man who’s been involved in the 9/11 attacks, he was deliberately sent to a place where he couldn’t be brought to trial, where we couldn’t hear the evidence against him. So we don’t know the truth about these allegations.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Stephen Grey, an award-winning investigative reporter who’s contributed to the New York Times, Newsweek, the Atlantic Monthly, many other publications, first exposed the rendition program back in 2004. His book is called Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re continuing our conversation with Stephen Grey. [He] has authored Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. You have documented in this book something like, what, 87 people who have been the victims of this program?

STEPHEN GREY: That’s right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it called “extraordinary rendition”?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, it’s extraordinary because of the way that it was transformed from a program that brought people back to justice in the United States to a public trial before a judge and jury to a program that took people to places where they wouldn’t face such justice. So, rendition itself has been around for a long time, in fact since the 1880s, and has always been about, you know, snatching people where you wanted in the world. It’s been legal in U.S. law — and not perhaps in other countries — but in the 1990s they started using it to send people to other countries. So it actually started under President Clinton.

But the difference that occurred after September 11th was that it greatly expanded, but also it was used after that period to send people to places where there weren’t even any charges against them. It was used to take people off the streets that were considered a threat and were sent to countries where they had no connection at all. I mean, Maher Arar, as you know, was a Canadian citizen, was sent to Syria. We’ve got an Egyptian citizen sent to Libya. We’ve got Ethiopian citizens sent to Morocco, really showing how it was used as a method of outsourcing of interrogation, not simply just to imprison people somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the case of Muhammad Haydar Zammar?

STEPHEN GREY: Right. Well, he was one of the key suspects from 9/11. In fact, when he was captured, he was captured in Morocco in December of 2001. He was one of the first people in U.S. custody for the 9/11 attacks. And you would have thought that after those attacks, when the FBI and the other agencies were given the mission of finding those responsible, that he would have been held by the United States, brought to trial perhaps, questioned in New York. But, in fact, he was sent to Syria. His interrogation was outsourced to Syria.

And I got hold of a German intelligence report, which specifically states how the U.S. organized that transfer to Syria, and what’s more, there were trade-offs involved. They asked the Moroccan government, which was involved in that transfer — sorry, they asked the European Union not to criticize Morocco over human rights, because of this transfer, because of Morocco’s cooperation in the war on terror. So you see that behind this network of transfers and cooperation, there are trade-offs in the way that we deal, with soft glove, some of the people that we would otherwise criticize over human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, astoundingly, Syria itself. You had President Bush, just a few weeks ago at the UN General Assembly, calling Syria the crossroads for terrorism. Yet behind the scenes the U.S. is cooperating with Syria in having prisoners sent there to be tortured?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, I think the contradictions here have been so apparent that the relationship probably has deteriorated recently. But even going back to this period — busy period after 9/11, 2001, 2002, at that point the State Department was saying very clearly that people would be tortured in Syria. The Syrian regime was put on the candidate list, if you like, of the axis of evil. It was stated very clearly, this is a country condemned by George Bush for its legacy of torture and oppression. And at the same time, they were sending people to Syria.

And the key thing was, this was a covert operation. It was embarrassing, and it’s still the most embarrassing country for the administration, because they’ve talked about their agenda of spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East, and yet the same people who are preventing that democracy from happening, the secret police of these countries, are on the other hand referred to as liaison partners in the war on terror, people we work with, the same people who are locking up dissidents who want to bring the kind of democracy that everyone, I think, in the United States would like to see in these countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, last December, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “The United States has not transported anyone and will not transport anyone to a country, when we believe he will be tortured.”

STEPHEN GREY: Well, it’s not true. And I think she knows that. They have preserved a legal fiction, when they’ve sent people to these countries, by asking those countries — sometimes just verbally — to say that they won’t be tortured, to say that they’ll be given a fair treatment, they’ll be brought to trial. But what was interesting in researching this book was, I went back to some of the people involved in this rendition program from the earliest period, and they said quite categorically — some of these people, you know, believe that rendition is a good thing, and they still defend it, but the one thing they’re absolutely clear about is, they told everyone in concern, they told the White House, they told the directors of the CIA, they told the State Department, that sending people to these countries would involve torture. They knew there would be torture involved and all those promises that they got were a legal fiction. And one of the ambassadors — United States ambassadors to Egypt told me — it was kind of nod-nod-wink-wink that went on — they knew perfectly well these people would be tortured. So when Condoleezza Rice says that they had credible promises these people wouldn’t be tortured, she’s not telling the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, right now there are investigations going on of people being kidnapped off the streets — for example, in Milan, the Sheikh who was kidnapped. Can you talk about the prosecutors and the, was it, two dozen CIA agents who were involved with this?

STEPHEN GREY: That’s right. And they left a trail of clues behind them. They were quite surprising in the way they allowed themselves to be uncovered. What happened there was, there was a man called Abu Omar. He was under investigation for involvement in terrorism, and the Italian prosecutor involved wanted to bring him to court. In fact, if he was still in Italy now, he would be in court. He would have been prosecuted in a normal way in an open court. They were collecting evidence against him.

But what happened instead was that in February of 2003, he was snatched off the streets and taken in a series of executive jets via Germany to a jail cell in Cairo, where he says he was severely tortured. He was released briefly, and he made a phone call back home to his family in Milan and explained what had happened and how he had been kidnapped. And because Italian police were listening to that phone call, the story was revealed.

He was quickly re-arrested after making that call. Presumably the Egyptians were listening, too. But that unlocked that whole scandal in Italy. And the Italian prosecutors, who believe that terrorists should be prosecuted in a court of law, rather than being tortured in a jail cell in Egypt, have pursued this case absolutely vigorously. And there’s going to be a trial very shortly of the CIA agents involved. There are arrest warrants for them. None of them are being caught. Perhaps they never will be, but there will be an open trial, perhaps held in their absence, that’s going to take place in Italy and will expose further details of this whole operation.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Khaled El-Masri and the German investigation that’s going on into that?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, this is a pretty live story. The German government have treated the rendition of their citizen, Khaled El-Masri, who was on holiday in Macedonia in Eastern Europe — he was picked up and flown to a CIA prison in Afghanistan, held for five months without any charges, without any accusations made against him, finally released without any compensation, without any apology, without any confirmation by the CIA that they carried out this act. He has returned to Germany and made the complaint to the German government. And what’s interesting is the German government are treating that as a criminal offense, as a suspected kidnapping. And now they’re looking to find those responsible. And it looks like, in the coming weeks, they’re going to issue an arrest warrant for some of the people they believe carried out that transfer from Macedonia into Afghanistan. I mean, it’s one of those things.

We’ve — in order to investigate this story, I’ve had to try and trace some of the companies involved, some of the individuals, to try and prove what has been kept secret, the fact that the U.S. government has been responsible for these transfers. And, you know, we wouldn’t have had to do any of that, we wouldn’t have had to dig into any of these CIA operations, if the government had actually just come clean and said, “Yes, we are the ones that were responsible for this transfer. And if we made a mistake, we’ll apologize.”

There’s, you know, an old phrase: trust, but verify. If you want to trust these people, you want to send prisoners to countries like Uzbekistan, for example, where they boil prisoners alive — they’ve been known to do that. I mean, I don’t know how many people have been treated in that way, but it’s a country run by an ex-communist who’s known for that treatment. Well, if we’re going to send people to that country, the least you can do is confirm that you’ve done that. Instead of taking part in a disappearance, take part in an open procedure, where there’s a chance of verifying how these people are being treated. But, in fact, the whole program is being protected by secrecy, and it’s kind of forced us to do all these investigations just to prove what’s been going on.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Stephen Grey. He’s author of Ghost Plane. You make the argument in your book that the harsh treatment, that the torture, that the extraordinary renditions that are used to talk about fighting the war on terror is actually hurting the war on terror. How?

STEPHEN GREY: Yeah, it’s not a point that I really make myself, but a point that has been made to me by many of those involved, some of the most experienced people in fighting to counter insurgency around the world, military officers and CIA — and former CIA operatives. It’s hurting, because — I think you have to go back to what would people like Osama bin Laden like us to do. What do they want us to do? They want us to torture. They want us to take oppressive acts, because that wins recruits to their causes. It’s an old lesson of — an old method of terrorists. Take a small minority extremist group, how do they win support? How do they turn themselves into a mass movement?

The answer is, cause a terrorist action, kill an innocent people, provoke an enormous reaction which rounds up people who are innocent, causes people to want to take revenge for what’s happened to their families. And this is what’s happened. There’s been a massive reaction. There are people who have been turned into terrorists, as a result of some of the repressive actions that have taken place. And rendition is one of those repressive actions.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, I want to ask you about Venezuela. In your book, you write, “The data exposed secret operations by the CIA around the world, even the presence of planes previously used by the CIA in Venezuela at the time, as activists there were alleging, the CIA was plotting a coup back in 2002.”

STEPHEN GREY: Right. This is a story that needs further investigation, and I mention it because I think it’s quite important to know what really happened there and whether the CIA was involved, and other agencies, in trying to prevent Chavez from taking power in Venezuela. What we do know is that there were allegations of a coup attempt against Chavez. And what’s very interesting is to see that planes that have been used by the U.S. government and, for example, have appeared at Guantanamo Bay — it’s not like ordinary planes that go and visit Guantanamo — and have been chartered for various other operations. In fact, you know, the same plane that took Maher Arar from John F. Kennedy to Syria, the man we’ve discussed who was tortured in Syria, that plane also turned up in Venezuela. And it’s just interesting to see the dates of when these planes go to Venezuela at some pretty crucial moments. But, as I say, this is a story that needs further investigation. I mention it because I think it’s important that we find out what was going on there.

AMY GOODMAN: In the footnotes of your book, you say the first appearance of a possible CIA plane in Venezuela was March 4th, 2002, one day before the coup that temporarily ousted President Hugo Chavez. The possible CIA planes also returned to Venezuela on November 19, 2002; December 6, 2003; January 3, 2004; September 3, 2003; September 4, 2003; November 9, 2004. Now, doesn’t Chavez know these planes are flying in?

STEPHEN GREY: I don’t know. They don’t come saying CIA on them. They come as private business jets that are coming into Venezuela, so I’m not sure he would know who was on board. It wasn’t the actual day before the coup. It was the day before there was a plan signed to remove Chavez.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. The coup was in April.

STEPHEN GREY: Yeah, exactly. So it’s a very interesting area. I’ve concentrated on looking at the role of these planes in rendition, but I’ve actually printed in the back of the book some of the flight logs of these planes around the world and a number of other operations they would have been involved in that would take some investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the CIA or U.S. government still running secret prisons around the world?

STEPHEN GREY: It’s still holding people in secret detention, and there are many people hidden in that system. I think that what’s happened is, with the demands of the Supreme Court that the U.S. follows the Geneva Conventions, which do provide for rights of prisoners wherever they’re held to be brought before a court of law, to be held according to civilized standards, they’ve shut down many of the facilities for now, although they’ve been kind of given a new lease of life this week with the new legislation.

What’s happened is people are being disappeared into foreign facilities, and you can look at some very key people. I mentioned the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a very key supposed al-Qaeda operative, who provided some of the false information under interrogation that was used as an argument by Colin Powell to take this country to war in Iraq. That happened after he was rendered to Egypt. He was brought back into U.S. custody, was held in Afghanistan. And now, he’s completely disappeared. So it’s quite chilling really when the President stands up and says these jails are empty, because it makes you wonder, what have they done with everyone else? Where have they put them, you know? There are hundreds of people that were captured in Afghanistan, for example, that were not sent to Guantanamo. They were sent elsewhere, either held within Afghanistan or sent to other countries. And when they say the jails are empty, it’s quite frightening, because you think, well, where have they put all these people? And it’s still quite a mystery.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, we’re going to have to leave it there. His book is called Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program.