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On the Trail of the CIA

Posted in the database on Monday, December 12th, 2005 @ 20:44:13 MST (910 views)
by MANFRED ERTEL, etal    Spiegel Online  

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By MANFRED ERTEL, ERICH FOLLATH, HANS HOYNG MARION KRASKE, GEORG MASCOLO AND JAN PUHL

Since Sept. 11, the CIA has played a vital role in the war on terror. But what role is it? Operating in the shadows, American secret services have been given wide-ranging powers by the Bush Administration. And they include murder, abduction and torture.

Questions about the CIA and Bush's handling of the war on terror have been dogging the president of late.

It's Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, four days after the terror attacks in New York and Washington. US President George W. Bush withdraws with his closest advisors to Camp David in order to escape the chaos of the week and to develop the first plans to confront the new and unprecedented challenge facing the United States.

In the afternoon, then CIA head George Tenet distributes a file to all participants of the crisis summit. It's called "Going to War." Inside are the first rough outlines of the coming war against terrorism. In the upper left corner of the file's cover, there is a red circle inside of which is a portrait of Osama bin Laden with a black line drawn through it.

Tenet wants to go on the offensive. And his list of priorities is ambitious. Goal number one: Destroy al-Qaida and close off the terror group's zones of safety, wherever they might be.

According to Bob Woodward in his book "Bush at War," this is a list with wide-ranging powers, granted to authorities battling worldwide terror. And Tenet does not hold back. He requests that his agents be given the go-ahead to eliminate al-Qaida wherever the CIA comes across its members. He wants carte blanche for clandestine operations without having to first go through the long process of having them authorized. In addition, CIA agents should again have authority to kill -- a power withdrawn from US intelligence agents in 1976 by then-President Gerald Ford.

Also on Tenet's wish list is a request for hundreds of millions of dollars to buy help from foreign intelligence services. Specifically, Tenet thought agents from Egypt, Jordan and Algeria could help the CIA track down and eliminate al-Qaida.

Three days later, Bush signs a Presidential Directive whose exact wording only a very few Americans know until this day. Point for point, the demands made by the CIA were granted, and with that, the document became the first shot fired in the worldwide war on terror. Bush ordered the CIA to be the first on the new front. America's secret agencies were unleashed.

Four years later, America's intelligence services -- and especially the CIA (the "flagship of the business ... where you come if you want the gold standard," according to the agency's new director Porter Gosss) -- have become one of the most controversial weapons in the fight against terrorism. The most powerful army in the world has become an occupying power in Iraq and, by its mere presence, attracted a whole new generation of mujahedeen; but Bush's intelligence community has fought its part of the battle under the apparent motto, "The end justifies all means."

Washington's secret agents, whose disdain for international legal norms right up through the 1970s gained them a reputation for being ugly Americans, are back on the international political stage. Not everybody is happy to see them.

And Bush is using all tools at his disposal. Measured by sheer numbers and capability, America's gigantic secret service apparatus appears just as omnipotent as its military: Fifteen agencies with 200,000 employees and a yearly budget of some $40 billion. The sum represents more than most countries even spend on their militaries. The satellites of these agencies can read license plates from space -- and the newest generation of these advanced spy satellites are just as sophisticated as the Hubble Space Telescope. But instead of peering into the depths of the universe, they are look down at what's happening here on Earth.

Every day, analysts from this secret army deliver their findings to their superiors and, in the form of the Presidential Daily Briefing, to President Bush himself. It's a sort of super-secret daily newspaper -- with severely limited circulation -- comprising between 12 and 30 pages. It's the most important thing you have to read every day, Bush Senior -- himself head of the CIA for a year -- told his son when Bush Junior took office.

But the secret war doesn't end with America's spy agencies. Likewise in the shadows -- sometimes operating within international law, sometimes outside it -- are the special forces of the American military. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sends them on missions across the globe; indeed they may, some say, already be operating inside of an Iran that continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Ashton Carter, assistant secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, says he would be "surprised and disappointed" if covert measures were not already under way against Iran's armaments program.

And where American personnel can't go, the National Security Agency's (NSA) worldwide network can eavesdrop. The NSA routinely listens in on the United Nations in New York -- and UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, at least for a while, was one of the agency's number one targets, says James Bamford, a leading expert on the NSA.

One of the newest weapons in the secret service arsenal is called "geolocating." When satellites locate a suspect through a mobile phone signal, for example, special forces or warplanes can quickly strike. The technology has become so precise that mobile phones can be located to within one meter.

Indeed, the ability to locate a target precisely was instrumental in killing al-Qaida military head Mohammed Atif in his house near Kabul, in November 2001, or in the arrest of bin-Laden aide Abu Subeida in Pakistan. But the system also makes grave mistakes. In 2002 in Afghanistan, for example, hastily scrambled bombers dropped their ordnance on a wedding party instead of on a targeted meeting of terrorists.

US President Bush with CIA head Porter Goss.

CIA head Goss, himself a CIA agent for 10 years before he went into politics, encourages the risk-taking by his agents. "And when it goes wrong, I will support you," he has told them. He sends his agents with deadly powers and backpacks full of dollars into operations all over the world where they also have the authority to call in air power. Or, alternatively, they can call in a Predator -- drones armed with laser-controlled Hellfire rockets and which can be steered from half a world away using a simple joystick.

In the 1980s and '90s, secret operations in foreign countries became rarer, and analysis was emphasized. But that was the old CIA -- an organization former officer Melissa Boyle has derided by saying the days of James Bond are over. President Bush has repeatedly warned Americans that the new enemy confronting the US is totally different than all those that have come before.

This warning represents the birth of the new CIA -- an agency that should strike fear into the hearts of its enemies.

So is the CIA on the road to re-establishing the notoriety it for so long had in the Third World? That of a frightening, secret power that kidnapped politicians, bought mercenary troops and toppled governments at will merely because Washington didn't approve of them?

Shortly after the agency's founding on July 26, 1947, by President Harry Truman, the CIA had already made the world its playground. It began deciding who were the good guys and who were the bad guys and began to punish the bad guys at the order of the White House.

The "firm" had a license to kill, and used it during the Cold War against a Soviet enemy that was at least as brutal. In the 1960s, the CIA developed a highly poisonous arrow that was supposed to leave no traces whatsoever during an autopsy. It also experimented with training dolphins to deliver explosives to a given target.

But these were hollow victories. Mixed in with the successes were disastrous missions abroad and embarrassing mistakes at home. The combination led to the CIA becoming more of a burden then a help. The nation was horrified to learn that President Richard Nixon used former agents for the Watergate break-in; Americans were disgusted by the government's spying on tens of thousands of citizens critical of their government; the term "America's Gestapo" began to make the rounds.

The result was a reigning in of Big Brother. In 1974, a law went into effect requiring that all clandestine operations abroad had to be rubber-stamped by Congress. Intelligence services began concentrating almost exclusively on technological data-gathering -- and thus largely stayed out of the Iranian revolution. In an Afghanistan fighting against the USSR, the CIA failed to appreciate that the mujahedeen -- generously supplied with American arms and money -- were not only fanatic opponents of the Soviets, but were also against the American "crusaders."

Part II: Cheney goes to the dark side

Standard supplies issued to prisoners at Guantanamo.

Indeed, the pact with the Islamist warriors -- in combination with an almost blind faith in the Pakistani secret services -- played a large role in the development of the Taliban and al-Qaida both. Afghanistan became Bin Laden Land.

The fact that Sept. 11 resulted in major changes to the American spy services was thus hardly a surprise. What was surprising, though, was the speed with which they regained their bad old reputation. The list is growing once again: allegations that the CIA handed out large sums of money in Venezuela in an effort to topple Hugo Chavez; and a growing number of terrorists executed by the agency's drones.

In Yemen, a Hellfire rocket fired by a CIA Predator took out the alleged ring-leader of the 2000 attack on the USS "Cole." The CIA killed the Egyptian Hamsa Rabia -- the al-Qaida number three -- in Pakistan not far from the Afghanistan border using the same weapon earlier this month.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who even on his good days increasingly resembles an old-style Soviet general secretary, publicly announced the CIA's change of direction. One has to operate in the shadows, he says. In order to defeat the terrorists, America's agents "have to work the dark side, if you will." If the enemy doesn't play by the rules, then we won't either, is Cheney's message.

The war in Afghanistan, and the hunt for bin Laden, showed to what extent the CIA was willing to use its new powers. Cofer Black, the coordinator for counter-terrorism, demanded the head of the al-Qaida boss and meant it quite literally. The gruesome trophy should be sent express -- and "on ice" -- to Washington, he said. Bush also takes the hunt for the terrorists personally: In his desk is a list of al-Qaida leaders that he crosses off each time one of them is captured or killed.

Originally, the CIA likely considered taking out all al-Qaida bigwigs using hit teams -- the way Israel's Mossad killed those responsible for the 1972 Olympic bloodbath in Munich, or executed the military leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But then, the concern won out that even as al-Qaida leaders were erased, unknown terror groups could strike again.

A new idea gained credence -- that of capturing al-Qaida members alive in order to interrogate them and profit from information about the organization and its plans. Information was the only way to combat the danger of new attacks.

Exactly how far this system has gone to gather information -- and how widespread its secret prisons are -- is known by only a very few Americans. At the request of Cheney, only the chairs and vice-chairs of the intelligence committees in the Senate and the House are informed. Such information is top secret, Cofer Black told a congressional group in September 2002. "This is a highly classified area," he said. "All I want to say is that there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off."

All congressional and legal investigations into the abuse of prisoners by Americans have been performed, so far, without the benefit of insight into the practices of the CIA. Not even the Red Cross has been allowed to visit a number of high-value prisoners -- from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of the attacks on New York and Washington, to Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, the head of an al-Qaida training camp. They have just disappeared.

Romanian military staff stand at the end of a corridor on the Mihail Kogalniceanu airbase, east of Bucharest.

For those in control of the scattered CIA prisons, there is no higher power. The Republican John D. Rockefeller, a member of the Senate intelligence committee complains that the government has made it clear that all those who would demand an element of control over these areas are to be criticized as being unpatriotic.

Although the exact extent of the CIA's new powers remains unclear, enough is known to determine that human rights are being violated, along with international conventions and treaties. Targeted liquidations, the kidnapping of suspects abroad and the delivery of prisoners to other country's secret services are definite examples of such violations.

Above all, interrogation experts from the CIA are still equipped with six notorious torture tools with which they can force prisoners to talk. To define them, government lawyers have chosen harmless-sounding euphemisms: the "Attention Grab" describes the practice of grabbing the shirt of a prisoner and shaking him -- only, of course, to get his attention. Then there's the "Attention Slap" and the "Belly Slap." Doctors recommend not using the fist out of fear of causing internal injuries.

Worse, though, is "long time standing," whereby prisoners are forced to stand uninterruptedly for as long as 40 hours. Rumsfeld's boorish observation -- that he too has to stand for hours during his workday -- seems rather cynical.

The keyword "cold cell" describes a practice of cooling prisoners' cells down to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and then repeatedly pouring cold water over them. But it's "waterboarding" that has generated the most outcry -- a form of water torture which leads the prisoner to believe that he is drowning or suffocating. Only a few seconds of waterboarding are necessary to get the most prisoners to talk. Khalid Sheik Mohammed is said to have held out a mere two minutes and a half. Senator Carl Levin, a Democratic member of the Senate intelligence committee, is demanding transparency. "It's totally unacceptable that documents that are requested from the CIA have not been forthcoming," Levin said during hearings held by a panel investigating the Abu Ghraib abuses.

Part III: Tortured to death by the CIA

US soldier Sabrina Harman with the "Iceman," an Iraqi prisoner killed in Abu Ghraib.

It is likely that nobody will ever now how many terror suspects abducted by the CIA have died in the torture chambers of Egyptian, Algerian, Syrian or Saudi Arabian prisons. When everything possible has been used to extract every last bit of information, the suspect's trail often vanishes.

In fact, it is generally good news for prisoners when they end up in prisons controlled directly by the CIA. There, "only" those methods of Torture Light described above are used. But those examples of prisoners dying while in American hands show just how quickly things can get out of control.

In November 2002, the guards at a secret prison -- called "Salt Pit" -- located not far from Kabul were ordered to strip one uncooperative Afghan prisoner naked, chain him to the concrete floor of his cells, and leave him there in below-zero temperatures all night. In the morning, he was dead. After a hurried autopsy, the guards quickly buried him in an unmarked grave on the edge of the city.

But only one single man connected to the CIA, David Passaro, has been prosecuted by a US court. Passaro, who was on contract with the CIA, stands accused of beating an Afghan prisoner to death during an interrogation in June 2003 on the US military base at Bagram.

The most spectacular case where a prisoner died at the hands of the secret services took place in Abu Ghraib. It's a case that has become infamous the world over by virtue of the private photos made by American soldiers for their own enjoyment. Alongside the pictures of sexual humiliation, there is one particular photo that stands out: that of the abused corpse of a man -- wrapped in plastic and packed in ice -- above which the American soldier Sabrina Harman poses with a wide grin.

The corpse has come to be known as "The Iceman." The case will likely haunt the CIA for many years to come as it shows exactly what happens when a legitimate state power is combined with contempt for humanity.

On Nov. 4, 2003 the special forces unit the Navy Seals got a tip-off and searched a house in a Baghdad suburb for Manadil al-Jamadi. The man was thought to have delivered explosives for a terrorist attack. Jamadi struggled a great deal when arrested. He didn't exactly come out of the tussle unscathed. He had a black eye and a cut on his face, but nothing fatal.

The Seals first brought their prisoner to the Navy camp at Baghdad's airport. Here, according to one eye witness, a CIA interrogator "pushed him in the chest with all his strength." The prisoner was then stripped naked and cold water was thrown all over him. "We'll grill you on an open fire if you don't talk," threatened one of the CIA men. "I'm dying, I'm dying," al-Jamadi moaned. "You're going to wish you were dead," replied the interrogator.

They then transported him to Abu Ghraib, where CIA employee Mark S. took him into custody. Forty-five minutes later he was dead.

The manner in which al-Jamadi died is known, among experts, as a "Palestinian hanging." It is regarded across the world as an outlawed practice. The prisoner is hung onto a high window by his arms, with his hands tied behind his back. This means that he can't make the slightest movement without experiencing extreme pain. Al-Jamadi collapsed during questioning. "He's only pretending to be dead," S. is reported to have said -- incorrectly, as it turned out. Al-Jamadi was indeed dead.

US President Richard Nixon resigning as a result of the Watergate break ins.

The case had still not been brought to court even two years after the incident took place. Paul McNulty, the lawyer responsible for the eastern district of Virginia, which had jurisdiction over the CIA headquarters of Langley, is trying to, if not cover up the case, at least drag it out. McNulty is known as a Republican and supporter of Bush. In the meantime he has been nominated as deputy to Minister of Justice Alberto Gonzales, the man who helped make American torture socially acceptable.

The official line of the US government is to call such practices "robust treatment," rather than torture. That, for example, allowed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her most recent European tour, to deny that America carries out torture. The director of the CIA Porter Goss referred to the interrogation methods his agents used as "unique and innovative" methods of making prisoners talk.

But Republican Senator John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, says that practices such as waterboarding are nothing more than mock executions, which, regarded as torture, are outlawed all over the world. "In my view," he says, "to make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture."

It is exactly because of the gruesome treatment of prisoners that made it expedient to remove suspects as much as possible from the responsibility of American judges. This practice gave birth to the Guantanamo prisoner camp, as well as a whole range of so-called black sites, or secret interrogation areas, where the CIA keeps its most valuable prisoners under continuous observation. These mobile secret camps came into being exactly because the US government feared that the courts would eventually demand fair trials even for the inmates of the prisons on Cuba.

Apparently one of the first black sites was in Thailand. When news leaked out, the government in Bangkok demanded the withdrawal of the interrogation experts from Langley.

For a while the CIA even dreamt of having its own Alcatraz, and looked into setting up a high-security prison in Lake Cariba in Zambia. Worries about the reliability of the government in Lusaka put paid to this scheme, but the environment would have been ideal. John Radsan, a former CIA lawyer, commented on his ex-employer's prisoner program by saying "It's the law of the jungle. And right now we happen to be the strongest animal."

The CIA then seems to have turned to the states of Eastern Europe, regarded as particularly acquiescent to Washington. They like to team up with Europe when it comes to economic development, but as far as security goes, they rely on cooperation with the United States.

This explains why Europe became the central hub for the transport of CIA prisoners. Hundreds of the now infamous flights used the airspace between Greenland in the north and the Azores in the south, and the Atlantic coast of Ireland in the west and Romania in the east. There is hardly a country which was not used, and more details are constantly being unearthed.

Part IV: Dark flights across Europe

German citizen Khaled el Masri was abducted by the CIA in Macedonia.

An odd alliance of human rights organizations, state government observers, journalists and plane spotters has created a close-meshed network of indicators which raises more and more questions about the US secret services and their dubious practices. Not to mention the stupidity or acquiescence of their European allies.

On Jan. 22 of the previous year, for instance, an unsuspicious-looking Boeing 737 with the identity number N313P landed at the airport of Son Sant Joan in Palma, Mallorca. The aircraft came from Algiers and was on the way to Skopje. There it was boarded, the next day, by the Lebanese-born German citizen Khaled al-Masri, who had been abducted by CIA agents and was being flown to the Afghan capital Kabul.

When it became clear that the secret service had captured the wrong man, bitter arguments within the CIA broke out on how to deal with the incident. It was the then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who last week got such a battering all over Europe for the CIA kidnappings, who ordered the German's release.

The illegal prisoner shuttle only came to light in March, when human rights organizations brought the case of "abduction, illegal arrest and torture" to the local courts. The government in Madrid had no intention of admitting to collaboration with the Americans. The new socialist foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos attempted to smooth over the public outcry and protect the previous conservative government with a "message of peace and calm."

But Moratinos had every cause for concern. According to recent official inquiries, US aircraft, commissioned by the CIA, are thought to have used Mallorca as a stop-off point at least 15 times in the last two years. And officials report nine landings on the Canary Island of Tenerife.

Investigators suspect that the incriminated Mallorca plane took at least 19 cross-border trips for the United States. Apart from landing at Palma, the passenger jet also stopped off in Ireland, Larnaka in Cyprus and in the Swedish town of Orebro.

A mission on Sept. 22, 2003 is especially interesting. On this particular Monday a CIA-operated Boeing took off from Kabul and made its way to the northern Polish airport of Szymany. It then flew on to the Romanian staging post of Mihail Kogalniceanu on the Black Sea. Critics of the CIA, such as the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, have had their eyes on both arms bases for a while now.

Only a few days ago, according to reports by the US channel ABC, high-ranking al-Qaida fighters are thought to have been shipped out of Europe in time for Secretary Rice's visit. One of these involuntary travelers was Ramzi Binalshibh, who helped plan the attack on the World Trade Center. The new destination: unknown dungeons "somewhere in North Africa."

In Poland, cooperation with the CIA has always been strongly denied. The new government refers to the explanation given by the outgoing president Kwasniewski. "Such a prison has never existed," he said.

Really? The camp in the small town of Szczytno in Mazury is certainly tailor-made for secret missions. Official flights to what has become Poland's most famous airport stopped long ago. Gone are the big plans whose remnants can only be seen in the multi-lingual signs: "Welcome to the international airport of Szczytno-Szymany."

Only private aircraft land and take off here. When, for example, King Juan Carlos of Spain wants to do a bit of hunting in the forests full of wild beasts. Or, possibly, when American friends have urgent business which needs to be dealt with?

"The airport is always ready for action, the technical equipment is all intact," says the uniformed border guard. Local residents report that black minivans with darkened windows and military markings are always driving by. Vehicles like this belong to the official fleet of the military unit 2669, 20 kilometers away in Stare Kiejkuty.

Two barbed wire fences separate the tiny village from the site with its watch-towers, barriers and far-off red and white radio masts. Photos are strictly prohibited and Polish journalists have had film and memory chips confiscated over the last few days.

Unit 2669 is officially the "training center for news service cadres." And the fact that it is so near, politically to the new American allies, and geographically to the airport, makes the site of particular interest. Respected village resident Krzysztof Uminski, 45, the last farmer in the area, does not like answering pushy questions. After all, he says, most of the other villagers live from "work provided by the state." Only hesitatingly does he admit what that means. The spy school is the only major employer in the remote area surrounding the lake.

The flights via Spain are not the only ones to have attracted attention. A Gulfstream with the identification number N85VM also keeps cropping up as a CIA transporter in international log-books and with human organizations. On April 12, 2004 it took off from Guantanamo with an unidentified cargo. First stop was Spain. The explosive mission's destination was Bucharest.

The airport of Mihail Kogalniceanu, often called simply "MK" by American allies, lies about 200 kilometers from the Romanian capital. The US military has been using the maneuvering area as a supply base for the Iraq war since 2002. Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement with the government in Bucharest that would allow the USA to keep a base for troops there long-term. The agreement is only a logical next step. Parts of the camp have been American-only military areas for years, as the former minister for defence, Ioan Mircea Pascu, was forced to admit.

British journalist Stephen Grey counts 210 dubious flights to England alone, by noting official records of flights commissioned by the CIA. There are thought to be dozens more, according to research in Ireland and Portugal. Landings have also apparently happened in Prague, Helsinki and Budapest. Estonia, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway and Denmark all lie on the flight-path.

On Feb. 17, 2003 in Milan, a CIA commando force abducted the radical Islamist Abu Omar in "a completely illegal act", as observers describe it, and flew him out of the country. Extradition warrants have been made out for 22 CIA pursuers.

But the central hub for Europe was Germany: the Americans used the Frankfurt Rhein-Main Airbase for 437 flights. It was from here that Hercules flight N8183J took off, which on Jan. 21, 2003, set off an alarm with the Austrian air force. Two Austrian chaser jets were scrambled. Identifying the plane (built by the US company Tepper Aviation) as a "pseudo-civilian aircraft," the pilots let it pass.

Part V: No prosecuting; no killing

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has sent US special forces all over the world

The fact that the planes are deterred from using neutral airspace was also noticed by Sweden. A great deal of anti-US distrust has brewed in Sweden since the CIA brought two Egyptian asylum seekers from abroad in 2001, in full view of the Swedish police -- albeit only after the Swedes had arrested the men after a tip-off from the Americans.

Just hours later US agents, in a Gulfstream V business jet (registration N379P), landed at Bromma budget airline airport on the outskirts of Stockholm. Eight masked men climbed out of the private jet, grabbed the Egyptians and cut their clothing off them with knives. They gave them tracksuits to wear and covered their heads with hoods. Swedish protests were cut short by curt gestures.

Within ten minutes the Egyptians, who were thought to belong to the group Islamic Jihad, were on the Gulfstream, and, shortly after that, out of the country. Swedish diplomats reported later that both have since then been tortured.

The in-house airline belonging to America's most powerful intelligence service is the industry's worst-kept secret. CIA lawyers and the international air transport authorities demanded that the fleet of aircraft should have proper registration. Once someone has found out the identification numbers of these planes, it doesn't take long to then follow their movements.

Employees of the CIA shuttle company always have run-of-the-mill names like Steven Kent or Audrey Tailor. They never have private telephone numbers or previous employers. Their social security numbers are brand new; their only fixed addresses are postal boxes. These are classic "sterile identities," as the CIA calls them.

Former CIA officer Robert Baer, one of the most successful secret service Middle East experts, described the arrangement with disarming openness: "There is a rule inside the CIA that if you want a good interrogation and you want good information you send the suspect to Jordan, if you want them to be killed or tortured to death you send them either to Egypt or Syria, and you never see them again."

Now hardly any country is willing to take in the sorry caravan of CIA officers and their prisoners. Everyone fears retribution from al-Qaida.

Even before the spread of the latest CIA scandal, the new use of power showed itself to be counterproductive in many ways. Admittedly there has been no major attack on the USA since September 11 - ten attacks have been prevented all over the world, Bush boasted in October - but the statements forced out of prisoners under ill treatment don't help anyone, as they would never be admissible in an American court of law. "Even Adolf Eichmann got a trial," warns McCain. Maybe too late: a fair trial after torture is no longer possible.

That puts the CIA between a rock and a hard place. "You can't prosecute these people, but you can't kill them either," said Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA special unit which, already under Bill Clinton, was assigned to tracking down Bin Laden. "All we've done is create a nightmare."

How damaging the program of fighting terror has become is shown by the case of the defendant Jose Padilla in Chicago, who was accused, after his arrest, by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, of wanting to set off a dirty bomb. But in the end Padilla was only charged with supporting and promoting a terrorist organization. The more serious accusations were based on statements made by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The government is loath to reveal what has been discovered, out of fear that, during the trial, the method of how these statements were obtained would come out into the open.

There can be no doubt that the political damage caused by this prisoner ill-treatment has long outweighed any possible use intended by such a policy. The CIA torture scandal is on the way to becoming a second Abu Ghraib. The torture carried out in the infamous Iraqi jails has damaged the USA's image across the world, and destroyed its moral pretence to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East.

For months now, Washington has been reeling with a bitter debate on how to bring an end to the unceasing accusations of torture. The camp of Guantanamo is also included in the debate. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Secretary of State Rice demand that UN inspectors should have the right to contact prisoners. In Congress, politicians from both parties support the law proposed by Vietnam veteran McCain, which would ban torture by US authorities.

But Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Goss fight, with rear-cover provided by the White House, to provide the secret service with an exemption from this ban on torture. It is possible they are fighting a losing battle.

Last Wednesday, in Kiev, Secretary Rice said the UN ban on torture also applied, naturally, to American state employees. "As a matter of US policy," she said the United Nations Convention against Torture "extends to US personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the US or outside the US." Since then, speculations have been made in Washington as to whether hardliners will step down or fight back as soon as Rice returns.

Now respected veterans of the intelligence community are joining in the debate: Vincent Cannistraro, a former anti-terror head of the CIA and leader of the working group which investigated the Lockerbie crash in 1988, doubts how worthwhile statements made under torture can be. "Detainees will say virtually anything to end their torment," he says. Burton Gerber, the former head of the Moscow unit is convinced that torture "corrupts every society that tolerates it." Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and foreign ministry anti-terror expert says "What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust ... than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets." And ex-agent Baer, whose life was the inspiration for the Hollywood thriller "Syriana," is even certain that "this story will destroy the CIA."

Even the interrogators have been left with nagging doubts as to the legality of their actions -- despite all the assertions made by the government. Why else would Washington be so adamant about keeping prisoners off American soil? Tenet demanded guarantees, again and again, that his agents would not be hauled in front of a court sometime in the future.

Which led to the infamous seal of approval from the Attorney General's office and the White House, in which then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee confirmed that every type of interrogation method was allowed as long as it didn't lead to serious injuries, organ failure or death.

The current Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff also rubber-stamped such actions. And Attorney General Gonzales made a speech to the Senate in which he claimed that ill-treatment of prisoners was permissible as long as those affected were not US citizens and the torture took place abroad. All three seals of approval for torture were supported by Bush.

As a result of remaining uncertainty, the CIA demanded that the politicians themselves take over responsibility for the treatment of prisoners in the worldwide war on terror. "We should lock these people up," the former terrorist hunter Scheuer said to SPIEGEL. "They declared war on us, so we are allowed to hold them until the end of the war." He defended the basic principle of the fight against terrorism: "We have to catch these people before they can do more killing."

However, Scheuer also admits that America's arrogant disdain for prisoner rights has been like "shooting your own leg." He said that in reality there was no need for special powers or new means of interrogation. "This whole story is a massive success for al-Qaida, because we are losing the support of Europe, our most important partner in the fight against terror."

At the same time, however, he sees the definition of torture as relative. "There is a difference between torture and severe interrogation methods. Torture is pulling someone's nails out."



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