How the US became a nation of torture and murder
An excerpt from Ian Cobain’s A Secret History of Torture:
Two days after the 9/11 attacks, during a meeting of Bush’s closest advisers, Cofer Black declared the country’s enemies must be left with ‘flies walking across their eyeballs’. It was an image of death so striking that Black became known among the President’s inner circle as ‘the flies on the eyeballs guy’. Unlike its allies – the UK, France, Spain and Israel – the US had little experience of serious terrorist attacks on its own territory, nor any understanding of the need for a patient response. Bush was impressed by Black. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, could see that the President wanted to kill somebody. The problem, as successive attorneys general had warned one president after another, was that they did not enjoy unfettered powers of life and death over the nation’s enemies. The CIA had been banned from carrying out assassinations since 1976.
The President turned to his Department of Defense and found that it had no cogent, off-the-shelf plan for responding to an attack of this nature on the United States. The CIA, on the other hand, did have something in its arsenal: it had the rendition program.
Since 1987, the CIA had been quietly apprehending terrorists and ‘rendering’ them to the US for prosecution, without any regard for lawful extradition processes. In 1995, President Bill Clinton – apparently with the full encouragement of his vice-president, Al Gore – agreed that a number of terrorists could be taken to a third country, including countries known to use torture, a process that would come to be known as extraordinary rendition.
Mike Scheuer, the CIA officer who started that programme, faced few objections from Clinton’s national security advisers when he began taking prisoners to Egypt, where they could be interrogated under torture. ‘They just didn’t want to know what we were doing,’ he says.
Before 9/11, however, there were limits. In 1998, for example, the CIA had drawn up a plan to kidnap Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and take him to Egypt. A shipping container was installed inside a Hercules aircraft and inside that was bolted a dentist’s chair fitted with restraints. The CIA were all ready to go when, at the last moment, the FBI persuaded Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, that bin Laden’s inevitable death at the hands of the Egyptians would be an act of murder and that US officials would be responsible. Reno vetoed the plan.
By 13 September, with a still-unknown number of Americans dead and the President wanting action, all such legal squeamishness had vanished. President Bush and Dick Cheney both believed al-Qaida had succeeded because government lawyers had been expecting the CIA to do its job with one hand tied behind its back. Bush said as much to his attorney general, John Ashcroft, when he warned him: ‘Don’t ever let this happen again.’ So when the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, went to brief the President a few days after 9/11 and began to talk of the need to gather evidence for future prosecutions, he was promptly silenced by Ashcroft. Prosecutions were beside the point, Ashcroft said. All that mattered was stopping another attack.
That night, Cofer Black locked himself away at his office at Langley and within five days had drawn up plans for the CIA’s response. It would entail a vast expansion of the rendition programme. Hundreds of al-Qaida suspects would be tracked down and abducted from their homes and hiding places in eighty different countries. The agency would decide who was to be killed and who was to be kept alive in a network of secret prisons, outside the US, where they would be systematically tormented until every one of their secrets had been delivered up. The United States had been blindsided by al-Qaida on 9/11 and that situation would not be permitted to occur a second time.
Black’s plan was presented to the President and his war cabinet in a series of meetings during the days after the attacks. On Monday 17 September, Bush signed off the paperwork: with a stroke of his pen the CIA was granted the power of life and death over al-Qaida suspects and could arrange for men to be detained and tortured indefinitely. All this, Bush later said, was to remain invisible.
A few hours afterwards there was a brief glimpse of the manner in which the United States would disregard the restraints of international law when responding to the attacks. Speaking at a press conference, Bush said: ‘There’s an old poster out West that says, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”’ The President then checked himself before saying that those responsible for the murderous attacks should be brought to justice.
Cofer Black’s master plan had already been presented to the CIA’s closest overseas allies. The evening before Bush signed off, Black and a handful of other senior CIA officers went to the British embassy on Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue, where they told senior British intelligence officers what was about to happen.
At the end of Black’s three-hour presentation, his opposite number at MI6, Mark Allen, commented drily that it all sounded ‘rather blood-curdling’. Allen also expressed concern that once the Americans had ‘hammered the mercury in Afghanistan’, al-Qaida would simply scatter across South Asia and the Middle East, destabilising entire regions. Black was dressed in the same suit he had been wearing five days earlier and was clearly exhausted, but he appeared to relish the vicious retaliation he had planned. He told Allen that all the CIA cared about at that moment was killing terrorists. One of the CIA officers at the meeting, Tyler Drumheller, could see that while the British appeared laid-back, ‘it was clear they were worried, and not without reason’. According to one account, even Black joked that one day they might all be prosecuted. But the CIA’s closest ally had been put on notice: the British could never honestly claim that they did not know what was about to unfold.
Shortly afterwards Allen departed for London, where Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw were waiting to be briefed on the Americans’ plans.
At the end of September 2001, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1373, which required member states to do more to assist the US and each other in eliminating international terrorism and called for a series of measures ‘in conformity with the relevant provisions of national and international law’.
The need to maintain a lawful response to the horrors of the al-Qaida attacks was stressed again and again throughout the resolution, but it was already too late. By then, Dick Cheney had said publicly that the United States was going to ‘work through sort of the dark side’ and that ‘it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective’.
On 2 October, members of NATO met at the organisation’s headquarters at Brussels and agreed that they should invoke Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, under which an attack on one member is to be regarded as an attack on all. At a second meeting two days later, the US representatives presented a number of specific requests, all of which were granted in a series of agreement documents that the US had itself drafted. Eight of those requests have since been made public. They included enhanced intelligence sharing, taking ‘necessary measures to increase security’ and granting blanket over-flight clearances for the United States and other allies’ aircraft for military flights engaged in counterterrorism operations. However, NATO has since admitted that a number of other requests were granted; all of them remain secret.
By now, the US had a broad agreement from its key allies that it would conduct its ‘war on terror’ in line with Cofer Black’s secret plan. What this would involve was spelled out in further detail at a subsequent meeting of the heads of the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. These men and women gather once every year to discuss signals intelligence-sharing arrangements, and after 9/11 it was New Zealand’s turn to play host. The venue was a house on the edge of the small South Island resort town of Queenstown.
The threat posed by al-Qaida, Tenet is said to have told the gathered spy chiefs, ‘is a challenge which redefines the way we work, the way we think, the way we act’. The CIA would accept no restraints and would in future work with the intelligence agencies of any nation. ‘Without them, and their help, we have no fucking global effort,’ the head of the CIA is said to have declared. ‘We’d be walking through the Arab world wide open and half blind.’ As far as the CIA was concerned, he said, ‘the shackles, my friends, have been taken off ’. And the CIA must not be alone in working closely with the intelligence agencies of the Arab world: ‘We must work as one.’
Cofer Black used similar terms during a subsequent Congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks when asked about the degree of freedom given to the CIA. ‘All I want to say is that there was “before” 9/11 and “after” 9/11,’ he said. ‘After 9/11 the gloves come off.’
By November 2001, with the supercharged rendition programme about to go live, Bush issued a barely concealed threat to those allies who failed to offer anything less than full cooperation. At a press conference before a White House dinner with President Chirac of France, Bush said: ‘A coalition partner must do more than just express sympathy. A coalition partner must perform. It’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. Either you’re with us or you’re against us in the fight against terror.’
Chirac offered the view that it was Resolution 1373 that set out the obligations of member states. Bush, clearly unimpressed, decided the press conference was over. ‘The soup’s getting cold,’ he said.
Exactly what was required of America’s allies in the fight against terror soon began to emerge. On the evening of 18 December, Paul Forell, a uniformed officer of the Swedish Border Police, watched as two cars pulled up outside his office at Bromma airport in Stockholm. A group of plain-clothes officers of the Säkerhetspolisen, the security service, walked into the office and informed him that a deportation operation was under way. Ten minutes later two more men arrived. They gave Forell their first names and said they were from the US embassy. As they were speaking, a US-registered Gulfstream V jet touched down and began to taxi towards Forell’s office. Some of the Säkerhetspolisen men went to greet it.
They returned with eight people: six Americans and two Egyptians. One of the Americans was a doctor. All of them were dressed in black and wearing black masks with small eye-holes. The visitors went to the parked cars and brought from them two handcuffed men: terrorism suspects Mohammed al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza.
The two prisoners were stripped and searched carefully. Their clothes were cut into pieces and placed in bags. Their hair, mouths and ears were carefully examined. Sedatives were administered by anal suppositories and they were put into nappies. They were then dressed in overalls, handcuffed again and leg irons were locked around their ankles. Then they were photographed and hoods without eye-holes were placed over their heads. Throughout this process the men in masks talked rapidly to each other in low voices. The two prisoners were walked to the Gulfstream and strapped onto mattresses at the rear of the aircraft, which immediately took off for Cairo.
Forell had witnessed one of the first of Cofer Black’s extraordinary rendition operations. Two men had been abducted from a European capital and taken to the Middle East to be interrogated.
Over the next few years, scenes like this would be repeated hundreds of times across the world. Men were rendered not only from the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq but from Kenya, Pakistan, Indonesia, Somalia, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Gambia, Zambia, Thailand and the United States itself. The US was running a global kidnapping programme on the basis of Cofer Black’s plan and the agreements reached at October’s NATO meeting.
Some prisoners were dispatched to Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan and Syria, or to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. An unknown number were sent to secret prisons that the CIA operated in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania and Romania. Wherever the prisoners ended up, however, they had one thing in common: they were going to be tortured.
On arrival in Egypt, al-Zery and Agiza were taken to the Tora Prison complex, fourteen miles south of Cairo, where they began immediately to suffer appalling abuse. Agiza subsequently appeared before an Egyptian court and was jailed for fifteen years. Almost two years after being rendered, al-Zery was released without charge after the Egyptian authorities accepted what he had always protested: that he had never advocated violence. He was then able to tell how he had been hooded continuously during his first two months of imprisonment and had suffered electric shocks on his genitals, nipples and ears. His first year of imprisonment was spent in a cell less than five feet square.