A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
If [torture] never worked at all, people would never use it…The problem is that you never know whether the information you’ve got through torture is reliable or not. But it is useful for other things as well. It’s useful for extracting confessions. Sometimes it’s even better than getting the truth because it means getting someone to admit to something you want them to admit to. -- Stephen Grey
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With Dick Cheney now officially calling torture techniques such as waterboarding a "no brainer," it's the right time to read Stephen Grey's book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. Remember, if we don't even know how many people are being spirited away without the right of habeas corpus and tortured, we don't know how many people are dying while being tortured. We spoke to Stephen Grey about his compelling book.
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BuzzFlash: How did this story break? The CIA was flying suspected terrorists to secret prisons in Europe and other places across the world to be tortured.
Stephen Grey: The story built up gradually, but there were early reports quoting anonymous people, just after September 11th. If you remember, Dick Cheney himself said that the U.S. had to step into the dark side in order to stop the war on terror. Prisoners who managed to escape or who were released from their detentions started talking about their experiences. Finding the airlines that transferred people around was also key to getting an understanding of the extent of what was going on.
BuzzFlash: How were you able to research the book?
Stephen Grey: I started with what the prisoners said after they were released. There had been thousands of people arrested after September 11th, and probably hundreds of those were rendered -- taken to other countries to be held. I also found details of an airline that was being used by the CIA, and the planes it was using, and got hold of flight plans. By corroborating statements from suspects around the world with various flight plans, I could show that these prisoners were absolutely right.
For example, one prisoner was taken in Pakistan, then flown on a Gulfstream jet to Morocco, where he says he was tortured for eighteen months, including having cuts over his body with razor blades. Then he was flown again from Morocco to Afghanistan and held in the CIA prison there for several months. Both of those two journeys matched up with the flight plans that I got hold of.
Then the final stage of my investigation happened within the CIA, when people who had been part of these programs started speaking about them. The CIA carried out these operations. They were honest about what was going on here, and that they knew fully well that if you sent people to these places, they would be tortured.
BuzzFlash: What is the current status of the flight torture program? Bush has said that he transferred many of the detainees to Guantanamo. But there is some indication that only some of those suspects were moved, and that the program is still currently running secret prisons in Europe and across the world.
Stephen Grey: The program can’t be over until they actually find a way to deal with the prisoners they have captured. When I heard the President say that the CIA prison program was empty, I found it quite chilling. I remember how many people he said he arrested -- over 3,000. In fact, in Afghanistan there were thousands of prisoners, and some of them were released. But only 700 were being sent to Guantanamo. So I was thinking, where are the rest? We don’t know where they are at all.
BuzzFlash: Is torture an effective tool for gathering intelligence? Most people would say that it’s not effective, but then again, it’s such a pervasive tactic, not just by the CIA, but in other countries as well.
Stephen Grey: If it never worked at all, people would never use it. I think this is part of the reason -- sadly -- that it has lasted through history, because it does work occasionally. The problem is that you never know whether the information you’ve got through torture is reliable or not. But it is useful for other things as well. It’s useful for extracting confessions. Sometimes it’s even better than getting the truth because it means getting someone to admit to something you want them to admit to.
You could even say some of the confessions at Guantanamo were very useful to allow the Administration to say, look, here are people who confessed to all these things. It doesn’t mean that it actually was good information. So torture itself sometimes can work, but you can never really be sure of the information.
BuzzFlash: The CIA often gets around human rights abuses by letting other countries get their hands dirty by torturing suspects, while the CIA is complicit and just turns a blind eye. Is that the prevailing agreement between the CIA and other countries like Syria, Egypt?
Stephen Grey: There are people there just doing their jobs to try and deal with terrorism, and they’d like nothing better than to hand people back to the United States, and put them on trial, and interrogate them according to the rule of law. I mean, this is the main agency role, regarding handing suspects. You can’t say it’s the deliberate policy of the CIA to try and have other people to do things for them. But that’s the way it’s worked out quite often.
It’s not that they want people to be given electric shock treatment, but they do want them interrogated, and they’re not able to do that interrogation themselves. Sometimes it’s just because they haven’t got enough people to do it, because there are just so many detainees. So many people were rounded up after September 11th and many of them have got very, very thin ties to anything extreme, let alone being actually terrorists. They ran out of resources to deal with them. They didn’t want to trust the FBI or anyone else to handle these interrogations; essentially they’d rather trust the Egyptians or the Syrians.
BuzzFlash: Let me play devil’s advocate for a second. There’s a prevailing assumption that if you’re arrested, surely you must have committed a crime. And likewise, a lot of the people, even intelligence officers, assume that if you’re rounded up in connection to a terrorist organization, well, you must be a terrorist, right?
And yet there are so many examples where the wrong people have been detained, then tortured, and sometimes forced to sign off on a false confession. Where does the fallacy come from that there’s no such thing as an innocent person? It’s a frightening scenario.
Stephen Grey: I think that it is wrong to punish someone before he or she is judged guilty of a crime. You could say that if a person is guilty, maybe the punishment is justified. But, at least we should find them guilty first.
The key issue is secrecy. I think the most important issue is that people should be arrested in a system where the police are operating in an open fashion. The courts are open. And they know if the police get it wrong, judges will come down on them very hard and demand accountability. Then there is some requirement at least to have some basic probable cause.
But the torture flights and secret prisons are often conducted with complete secrecy, which means that no one is going to judge what is happening. Many individuals have been picked up in this secret way because there isn’t the evidence to prove they are guilty of anything. If there were, they could be brought to court.
In many cases, people have been arrested because they know somebody who knows somebody else, and that somebody else may really be connected with terrorism. But just because you know somebody who knows somebody else doesn’t mean that you yourself are at fault.
BuzzFlash: Your book mentions Syria as one of the countries that uses torture on suspected terrorists, a country that many detainees have been transferred to. What’s interesting is that the United States right now formally does not speak to Syria. There is a gross hypocrisy about allowing Syria to be a surrogate for torture, and yet officially we don’t have direct, formal relations with them.
Stephen Grey: Syria seems to be the country we can’t live with and can’t live without. America has condemned Syria for many things -- not only for its support for terrorism, but also its policy of torture and human rights abuses. And that’s been a consistent policy statement of the White House and the State Department about Syria, and yet we’re secretly carrying out this very extensive program of sending people to Syria to be questioned, and sharing information back and forth.
A lot of this was the result of September 11th, when we were desperate for information and needed to find out what could be found out about al-Qaeda.
We exposed our lack of information by the serious intelligence shortfall, the lack of people who could do interrogations and who could actually speak to people. And so that threw us in the arms of some regimes like the Syrians who could really set the terms for their engagement.
BuzzFlash: A lot of European nations are extremely bothered by this issue. And there have been growing calls from various countries demanding accountability. Where are those investigations now?
Stephen Grey: The next stage is going to be a trial that may well take place in Italy in the spring of next year, when more than 25 alleged CIA operatives and Italian officials are going to be put on trial, if the prosecutor is successful, for the kidnap of an Islamic militant from Iran, and his rendition into Cairo and alleged torture there. So that’s the next phase, and that will explain all kinds of things since a lot of evidence has been collected and only part has been revealed. There are more investigations happening, including in Germany.
BuzzFlash: It’s certainly interesting how, in the five years since September 11th, we've learned that al-Qaeda isn’t what people originally thought it was -- a highly organized movement with hidden sleeper cells across the world. As more information has come out, I think people have debunked that myth of how powerful al-Qaeda really is.
It is certainly a threat, and certainly a radical philosophy. But the myth that there were these sophisticated, direct, interlinking organizations throughout the world has just not materialized. What’s interesting is that now you have a situation where “radicals” are rounded up because of their beliefs and then detained as terrorists.
If, in fact, the “war on terrorism” had been what the Bush Administration had said it was -- a highly sophisticated, clandestine operation -- you would fight it differently. But in reality, you have people who are rounded up in essentially rural parts of Afghanistan and the Middle East who own an AK-47 rifle and a mule and then are labeled as terrorists. The Bush administration’s frame of mind about the war on terror just doesn’t add up.
Stephen Grey: I think that’s right. I think you engaged the heart of assessing this kind of rendition program, because it’s all about snatching people with the goal of disrupting or conquering an organization. It makes much less sense when you’ve got this fluid organization that, the moment you slapped one person, he’s replaced by another.
If, for example, you had an organization like something in Hitler’s Germany -- a concrete, sophisticated hierarchy with bin Laden at the top of it and under him a series of cells that were responsible for different roles -- then you organize a rendition of all the key people and disrupt it.
But al-Qaeda appears to operate in a more fluid way. It appears that al-Qaeda members operate by inspiration and responding to the ideas of Osama bin Laden, his propaganda, and the inspiration from looking at what other people have done. I think countering the ideology of al-Qaeda, is countering their ideas and inspiration. That’s why oppressive policies make people all over the Middle East and the Arab world disaffected with the United States and Britain.
BuzzFlash: Stephen, we appreciate your speaking with us.
Stephen Grey: Thank you.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Scott Vogel.
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Get your copy of Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program from BuzzFlash.com.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW