As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that U.S. interrogators are forbidden to use torture both at home and abroad, we speak with British journalist Stephen Grey on how he tracks so-called "torture flights"–when the CIA kidnaps a suspect of the street and transports them to secret prisons. [includes rush transcript]
Seeking to defuse growing controversy over torture and the US treatment of detainees, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday that U.S. interrogators are forbidden to use torture both at home and abroad.
- Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, December 7, 2005:
"As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States’ obligations under the CAT (Convention against Torture), which prohibits cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment–those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside the United States."
Rice’s comments came on a stop in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. She has faced repeated questions on her European trip over the U.S. treatment of detainees and reports that the CIA is running a network of secret prisons in Europe. Officials in Washington and Europe praised Rice’s comments, saying they signaled a major White House policy shift. Previous public statements by the Bush administration have asserted that the torture ban did not apply abroad. But human rights groups say any concession is cosmetic.
Rice’s remarks did not clarify questions about what definitions the United States applied to terms like torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Her comments also did not directly address the practice of extraordinary rendition where CIA agents essentially kidnap people and then transport them to overseas prisons for interrogation by foreign governments.
- Stephen Grey, British journalist who written extensively on these secret CIA programs for the Sunday Times of London, New Statesman, New York Times and other publications. Over 18 months ago, he was one of the first to expose that the CIA was flying detainees to secret prisons around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Seeking to defuse growing controversy over torture and the U.S. treatment of detainees, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday U.S. interrogators are forbidden to use torture both at home and abroad.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States’ obligations under the CAT (Convention Against Torture) which prohibits, of course, cruel and inhumane and degrading treatment, those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Rice’s comments came on a stop in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. She’s faced repeated questions on her European trip over the U.S. treatment of detainees and reports the C.I.A. is running a network of secret prisons in Europe.
Officials in Washington and Europe praised Rice’s comments, saying they signaled a major White House policy shift. Previous public statements by the Bush administration have asserted the torture ban did not apply abroad. But human rights groups say any concession is cosmetic. Rice’s remarks don’t clarify questions about what definitions the U.S. applies to terms like "torture" and "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment." Her comments also did not directly address the practice of extraordinary rendition, where C.I.A. agents essentially kidnap people, transporting them to overseas prisons for interrogation by foreign governments.
We go now to journalist, Stephen Grey, who’s written extensively on these secret C.I.A. programs for the Sunday Times of London, New Statesman, New York Times and other publications. Over a year-and-a-half ago, he was one of the first to expose that the C.I.A. was flying detainees to secret prisons around the world. He joined us yesterday in our Firehouse studio, and I asked him how he first got on the trail of the so-called torture flights?
STEPHEN GREY: Well, it all began really when Guantanamo was opened up, and I heard from my sources that there was something else going on, that Guantanamo, if you like, was only the public face of the U.S. detainee policy, and that there were thousands of other people held elsewhere. And it was a matter of how you actually investigate something so, so secret going on around the world.
And it proved to be the planes that kind of unlocked the story, because it gave us a way of verifying the accounts of people who had been released, who made some pretty extreme claims, such as this German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, you know, describing how he was abandoned in the mountains of Albania by the C.I.A. When he told that to his family, they said, you know, ’Don’t bother telling your friends on this, 'cause no one will believe you.' It was only really by finding out about these planes and seeing all the movements that corroborated the accounts of these detainees that all this became credible, and we actually saw the tentacles, if you like, of this whole network of jails and prisons, which the U.S. appears to have supervised.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the companies involved in these secret flights? What does the U.S. military or C.I.A. — what companies are they using?
STEPHEN GREY: Well, it seems they’ve — as they did in the Vietnam era, with the Air America — they have a new generation of front companies that have been set up to run what appear to be civilian flights, but are, in fact, flights chartered by the U.S. government and actually planes which are owned by the U.S. government; and these travel around the world in the guise of normal civilian planes but, in fact, are C.I.A. planes.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know some of the names of these companies?
STEPHEN GREY: Absolutely, and we have published those. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
STEPHEN GREY: Well, I’m not going to name all of the companies on air, because that would maybe open me up to some legal action. So I’m — I think that the New York Times, for example, has published the full list of those companies.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Khalid El-Masri, the ACLU has filed a suit not only against the C.I.A., but against the actual individual companies of planes.
STEPHEN GREY: That’s right. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You, in May 2004, wrote a piece called "America’s Gulag." Interesting, because when Amnesty International used that term, they were slammed by the highest levels of the Bush administration, right up through President Bush. "America’s gulag, uncovering a secret, global network of prisons and planes that allows the U.S. to hand over its enemies for interrogation and sometimes torture by the agents of its more unsavory allies." How do these prisons —- how does the C.I.A. connect with them, find them? Now, most recently, Condoleezza Rice was in Romania. The allegations that the secret prisons are in, among other places, Romania and Poland -—
STEPHEN GREY: Well, —
AMY GOODMAN: How do they work with the governments? Germany, as well. I mean, here was an anti-war country, but the U.S. is working with Germany.
STEPHEN GREY: Well, the phrase "gulag," I think, is relevant, not because of the numbers involved. I mean, clearly there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of prisoners in the Soviet gulag; but what’s the interesting parallel is to look at how Solzhenitsyn described the Soviet gulag, which was a chain of islands of secret detention centers that existed hidden beneath normal society, so that, you know, behind a wall that appeared normal would be these prisons hidden behind.
And what you have here are these flights moving around from very normal airports, but inside are prisoners in the war on terror, and likewise, these jails are scattered around the world and no one sees them. They’re connected by these flights. And the numbers are probably a few dozen in the C.I.A.'s own prisons, but thousands more in the jails of allied countries, such as Egypt and Morocco and Jordan. And that's where the gulag term, I think, is applicable, where America comes in and how it’s — is in coordinating that and then actually facilitating the transfer of prisoners between these different jails.
AMY GOODMAN: And President Bush’s comments that we don’t — the United States is not engaged in torture?
STEPHEN GREY: Well, I think as a matter of policy that the United States does not engage in torture. I think. But the question is — which I think most people are asking is: What is the U.S. definition of torture? And there seems to be a lot of discussion on that. And it seems that what I consider to be torture is not what George Bush believes to be torture.
There’s also a matter of sending someone to a country where you — they know for sure he’s going to be tortured. Now, they’ve said — Condoleezza Rice has said, 'No one is sent to a country where they will be tortured.' Well, there’s no guarantee they’ll be tortured, but the U.S. — the United States State Department has, on repeated occasions, warned that in countries like Egypt, it’s very, very likely, they will be tortured; and, in fact the C.I.A. officers responsible know full well that these countries are countries that practice torture.
What I’m concerned about is that these people, these officers who’ve been involved in these practices, are essentially being left to hang out to dry by the administration, who are saying that, you know, 'no torture is involved' and ’we’ve never practiced torture.’ Well, hang on a second. The people I’ve spoken to say that when this whole policy was invented, the White House and the National Security Council in Washington was fully informed by the Central Intelligence Agency that if you sent someone to a country like Egypt, it was extremely likely that they would be treated with methods of interrogation which would not be acceptable in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Or, in, for example, Syria, a place that the Bush administration, to say the least, has said is a terrorist state, basically, sent Maher Arar, the Canadian Syrian who said he was held for a year and tortured in Syria.
STEPHEN GREY: Well, it’s a very interesting policy for the administration, isn’t it? On the one hand seeking to advocate democracy and trying to create a wholesale change in the regime of a country like Syria, and on the other hand, basically accepting the assurances of the Syrian Ba’athist regime that they do not torture people.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey of the Sunday Times of London.