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New PBS Documentary Gives Voice to Victims of U.S. “Extraordinary Rendition”

StoryNovember 06, 2007
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As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to vote today on the nomination of retired judge Michael Mukasey to be attorney general, a new PBS documentary features interviews with victims of extraordinary rendition speaking for the first time on U.S. television. We speak to investigative journalist Stephen Grey. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to vote today on the nomination of retired judge Michael Mukasey to be attorney general, the issue of waterboarding and torture is at the top of the agenda. Mukasey has refused to condemn waterboarding as a form of torture, yet his approval by the Judiciary Committee seems all but assured, after two Democrats on the panel said they will support him — that’s Schumer and Feinstein.

While the practice of waterboarding is getting mainstream coverage, another controversial Bush administration tactic is also being thrust into the mainstream spotlight: extraordinary rendition. A new Hollywood movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon is called Rendition, centers around the story of an Egyptian U.S. resident who is captured by U.S. agents at a U.S. airport, flown to a North African country to be tortured.

Then, tonight PBS’s FRONTLINE/World program is featuring a new documentary called Extraordinary Rendition. It’s an international investigation by the award-winning journalist Stephen Grey, who first tracked the CIA’s rendition flights in 2004. His book is called Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. The documentary features interviews with victims of extraordinary rendition speaking for the first time on U.S. television.

This is an excerpt of Stephen Grey’s investigation.

STEPHEN GREY: For years, I pursued the story of Bisher al-Rawi, an Iraqi-born British resident who once acted as a messenger between an al-Qaeda suspect in London and British Intelligence. In 2002, while he was on a business trip to Gambia in Africa, the CIA had al-Rawi and several colleagues arrested. He says he was betrayed by his British handlers, who turned him over to the Americans. Al-Rawi now finds it painful to recall his treatment by the CIA.

BISHER AL-RAWI: They took me into a room. They sort of stripped me, cut off my clothes. And, you know, they just did their stuff, which I don’t feel comfortable or necessary to go through, but it’s not very pleasant, not very nice, and very, very humiliating, very intrusive.

STEPHEN GREY: Al-Rawi was bound, gagged and hooded by the Americans. They drugged him with a suppository, dressed him in a diaper and a jumpsuit and put him on a plane. He was tied down in the same way as the U.S. military secure enemy combatants captured on the battlefield.

BISHER AL-RAWI: I was restrained from all — you know, feet, torso, chest. Of course, I can’t see anything, like, you know, I can’t see. I can’t hear. You know, my ears are blocked. I was in a lot of pain. And I was sort of counting the seconds, actually just counting one second, two seconds, just like that, really, just hoping that it’s going to be over soon, it’s going to be over soon. And then the aircraft landed. Now, they’re going to take us out of the aircraft. Now, now, now. They didn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the FRONTLINE/World investigation into extraordinary rendition, airing tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern time on PBS stations around the country.

Stephen Grey, the award-winning investigative journalist who conducted the investigation, author of Ghost Plane, joining us now from San Francisco. Welcome to Democracy Now!

STEPHEN GREY: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you tell us what happened to Bisher al-Rawi, the man who was just speaking now in that excerpt?

STEPHEN GREY: Yeah, he became a ghost prisoner. He disappeared. He was grabbed in the Gambia in West Africa with another prisoner, Jamil al-Banna, who was on a — they were both on a business trip. And the British had tipped off the Americans they were turning up, even though Bisher was actually — had been working with British Intelligence. And they were put on the same Gulfstream jet we’ve seen a lot in rendition operations — it operates from North Carolina by a company called Aero Contractors, a CIA front company — and were sent in this plane to a — first stopping in Egypt and then on to Afghanistan.

He is one of the first witnesses to come out of a CIA dark site, a black site, one of the first to exist, called the “Dark Prison.” And he describes this incredible experience of being locked up day after day, completely on his own, not even questioned, with music bombarding him, the music of madmen, he says, just bombarding him day after day. He said he couldn’t even see the end of his nose; it was that dark. And he was just left there for days on end. It was a form of psychological torture. I mean, eventually he was sent to Bagram, put in a cage in Bagram, beaten up there, he says, and then sent to Guantánamo Bay, where he remained for four years. He has just been released without any charge at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, can you talk about Abu Omar, who you went in secret to Egypt to interview, the sheikh kidnapped off the streets of Milan?

STEPHEN GREY: Yes. I mean, as you know, I’ve been following this story for a long time, all these renditions, and you sort of think it’s over, but then you realize there’s all these voices out there, the people who are ghost prisoners, becoming real and now able to tell their stories, and the story just gets more powerful.

And we were able to find the victim of probably one of the most notorious renditions. This was a man, as you said, picked off the streets in Milan, sent to Cairo, Egypt. Now, I’ve spoken previously to a lot of people in the FBI and the CIA who told me about the torture inflicted on people sent there by the CIA to Cairo, but here’s the man describing it for himself. And he was abused in the most appalling way. I mean, he was beaten, given electric shock treatments on his genitals. He was then raped. They tried to rape him. And — but this wasn’t just one day; it went on for thirteen months in prison. And he’s not been charged. He was never charged, and he was finally released.

And he also leaves behind dozens of people that he says are still in Egyptian jail, and they all wear a white uniform. The uniform says “interrogation” on it. And that means they haven’t been charged with anything. They are still there, held in secret, without access to any lawyers, and they’re held indefinitely. And they’re all people who have been sent there by the CIA in the rendition program.

AMY GOODMAN: The Italian court, where the more than two dozen CIA agents were being tried in absentia, has continued the suspension of that trial ’til the top court rules on it. How significant is this trial in absentia of CIA agents for the kidnapping of Abu Omar?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, you know, in the absence of a real congressional investigation into this whole program, the Italian court is the most comprehensive look at a case of rendition, and it’s going to expose all manner of parts of the CIA’s operations. Italian justice takes a long time. Their cases tend to drag on. And the Italian Supreme Court, their Constitutional Court, is going to rule about whether state secrets are being revealed in this case.

But the likelihood is, it will go ahead, because the Italian judiciary is very independent. And it’s going to show how the CIA officers worked in Milan. It’s going to show how the Italian police were actually investigating Abu Omar. They wanted to bring him into trial in a normal courtroom, but, in fact, he was just disappeared. His words are, he was “disappeared from history.” And also, the cooperation, secretly, of some Italian military intelligence officers who worked secretly with the CIA, essentially, according to the Italian police locally, betrayed them by snatching him away and destroying a normal civilian police investigation that would have actually potentially brought him to trial in a very normal way.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, the involvement of the Kenyan government in these kidnapping flights, these so-called extraordinary rendition flights?

STEPHEN GREY: Yes, and I wanted to know if this rendition — if rendition was continuing, you know, despite all the controversy and these court cases going on in Europe. And what I found was that it’s still happening, and it’s getting worse.

In the Horn of Africa this year, more than 90 people were picked up as they fled fighting in Somalia, and they were accused of being international terrorists, and among them were at least ten women and eleven children. They were put on flights, secret flights, out of Kenya through Somalia and then ended up in a secret prison in Ethiopia, and it was there that they were questioned by American agents.

Now, things are changing slightly. The rendition program is evolving, and you’re seeing other countries being used to transport and hold these prisoners. But ultimately, the objective is the same, which is that they are brought to a place where they can be questioned by the U.S. And it was quite striking. You had here not the arrest of a wanted terrorist, but the arrest of his wife and children. And, you know, you wonder what the purpose of that was, because, again, they were never accused of any crime; they were questioned for their intelligence value, and that interrogation took place for months and months and months, without any access to a lawyer, even the Red Cross, or any information given to these prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, what are your thoughts on Michael Mukasey, the attorney general nominee, who looks like he will be approved by the Senate committee, then gone onto the Senate, full Senate, with Democrats joining with Republicans in approving him, when he says, “If waterboarding is torture, then it’s unconstitutional,” but he has not said whether it’s torture?

STEPHEN GREY: Yeah. I mean, I’ll sort of duck the political questions, because I’m a reporter. But it’s interesting that the Senate has not dealt with the issue of rendition. I mean, you have something there, which is pretty clearly illegal, given that there is a very strong U.S. law the says you can’t send people to be tortured. And the time has come when one CIA officer after another, in authority, and including in our program, Tyler Drumheller, a former head of operations in Europe, saying very clearly, “We knowingly sent people to places where they would be tortured.” And it’s strange that the Judiciary Committee, which is there to investigate these things, has not examined that issue.

And I think on waterboarding, I, like many journalists, should issue a correction, an apology, really, because we all reported waterboarding as a simulated drowning. And I think you followed the story. It’s now very clear from those who did it, this is actual drowning. And it’s deeply abhorrent to those who watch it, who are there in the room — never mind for the person being tortured — because it actually involves a physical process of drowning, a “controlled form of death,” is what was the phrase used by one of those who’s used it very frequently, Malcolm Nance. He wrote a piece recently in the Small Wars Journal. And it’s abhorrent for those who watch it, and if the test in law is something that shocks the conscience, then that is torture. It’s very clear that anyone who has actually taken part in this process, be it actually done it, watched it or been a victim of it, that this is something that shocks the conscience and therefore is torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Have people died from waterboarding?

STEPHEN GREY: I’m not aware of people dying in the CIA program. They certainly have died in the past. And it’s a process of dying; you intervene at the last minute to rescue somebody.

But, you know, one thing that’s been covered over is that — I recently saw Tenet, George Tenet, the former director, being interviewed, and he said no one had died under CIA interrogation. That isn’t true. There were prisoners —- I followed the case of a prisoner who died in Iraq in a special part of Abu Ghraib. He died. He was asphyxiated. It was a homicide, and he died while in the CIA’s hands. And there was a prisoner in a CIA black site in Afghanistan, in the Salt Pit, a prisoner -—

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Grey, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much for being with us. The documentary that he has done on extraordinary rendition airs tonight, FRONTLINE at 9:00 p.m. on PBS.

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