German prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA operatives linked to the kidnapping and torture of German citizen Khalid El-Masri. The arrest warrants were announced at a time that the U.S. practice known as extraordinary rendition is coming under increasing scrutiny around the globe. We speak with award-winning journalist Stephen Grey. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to German prosecutors who have issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA operatives linked to the kidnapping and torture of a German citizen three years ago. The man is named Khalid El-Masri. He was seized in Macedonia, then flown on a CIA jet to a secret U.S. jail in Afghanistan. He was held for five months, tortured and then released.
The arrest warrants for the CIA agents were announced at a time that the U.S. practice known as extraordinary rendition is coming under increasing scrutiny around the globe. In Italy, another 26 CIA agents face prosecution for their role in the abduction of the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar off the streets of Milan. In Spain, a judge ruled Thursday for the state’s intelligence agency to declassify any documents it has about secret CIA flights.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government agreed last week to pay over $9 million to Maher Arar. He is the Canadian citizen who was seized by U.S. officials at Kennedy Airport in New York City in 2002, then sent to a Syrian jail where he was tortured. Khalid El-Masri, Abu Omar, Maher Arar were all seized as part of the secretive U.S. program known as extraordinary rendition. El-Masri and Arar tried to sue the CIA in federal court, but their cases were dismissed on grounds that they would reveal state secrets. Earlier this week, El-Masri’s lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic, called for accountability.
MANFRED GNJIDIC: Mr. El-Masri needs three things. The first thing is that the American government has to confirm what they have done to him. The second, what he’s interested in is that they do explain why this happened to him. And the third thing is now, because we know now that he’s innocent, that they do an apology to him — apologize to him.
AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration has refused to admit that U.S. agents were involved in El-Masri’s abduction. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack was questioned about the arrest warrants.
SEAN McCORMACK: I would just reiterate just very simply what the secretary has said many times over on issues of this type, and that is, that we respect the sovereignty of our friends and allies and that we have a very good relationship with Germany. We have a very good relationship with Germany working on counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining me now from Toronto is British journalist Stephen Grey. He helped expose the secret rendition program back in 2004. He’s the author of the new book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. Welcome, Stephen Grey.
STEPHEN GREY: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to these latest developments.
STEPHEN GREY: I think it’s an amazing turning point, really. We’ve now got a very, very serious prosecutor in Germany filing criminal charges declaring — you know, the German state is effectively declaring now that a major CIA program is a criminal activity. I mean, we’ve now got the three biggest centers of prosecution in Europe — Milan, Munich and Madrid — the three places which have done the most, really, to pursue terrorists, to investigate al-Qaeda across Europe, are now turning their attention to the CIA and in the belief that in pursuit of terrorism, you have to abide by the rule of law. And it’s going to place, I think, great pressure on the United States to also examine whether this program has followed the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened in the case of Khalid El-Masri.
STEPHEN GREY: Well, El-Masri was picked up in Macedonia. That’s in Eastern Europe. He was snatched on the border there, held in a hotel, and then picked up by a CIA team wearing black ski masks, and flown in a corporate jet, a large corporate jet, to Afghanistan, where he was held in secret in a secret jail for five months without charge. And he was finally released after going on hunger strike. And then, he was abandoned in the mountains of Albania before being released. It’s seen an incredible story, but it’s all been verified.
And I think, as I mentioned to you before on this program, in the book I describe and identify the CIA team responsible, because they visited an island, a Spanish island of Mallorca, stayed in hotels there, enjoyed quite a lifestyle there, but they left behind a trail of evidence showing who was in this team, and it’s these same people I identified, including the captain, a man by the name of James Fairing — that’s a false name, but that’s the name he used — five flight crew — four pilots and a mechanic — and the CIA team on board, the people who did the snatch. They’re all part of this team of 13 people that have all now been issued with arrest warrants in Germany. So it’s an astonishing development, and, as I say, the people behind this arrest warrant, the federal prosecutors in Munich, Germany, are people you have to take very, very seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this case, but I want to turn now to Frederick Hitz. He served as inspector general at the Central Intelligence Agency from 1990 to 1998 and is now a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Welcome to Democracy Now!
FREDERICK HITZ: Good morning. And I could not hear Professor Grey. Was that your intention? I couldn’t hear the feed.
AMY GOODMAN: No. I’m sorry that you couldn’t hear him. He was talking about the case of Khalid El-Masri and what happened to him and the fact that German prosecutors now have issued arrest warrants for 13 CIA operatives.
FREDERICK HITZ: I heard your lead-in, and the only thing that I think you have to establish is that it’s an allegation by El-Masri that he was tortured. I think that has yet to be established. And the other elements of your factual discussion of it sounded correct. But the torturing has yet to be established.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. Well, let’s talk about this other case that you’re very familiar with and that you want to make much more high-profile in this country, and this is the case of Maher Arar.
FREDERICK HITZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you go through the facts, as you understand them? And we’ve talked about this a lot on Democracy Now!, but this case of Maher Arar coming back from a family vacation in 2002 and transiting through Kennedy Airport, where he was picked up.
FREDERICK HITZ: Right. He started in Tunisia. He had been in Tunisia. He flew to Zurich and was flying from Zurich to home to Toronto via Kennedy. And he was apprehended upon his getting down from the flight into Kennedy on the basis of information supplied by the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Canadian intelligence officials that was erroneously exaggerated beyond what the Canadians actually knew about Mr. Arar. He was a "person of interest," which is a technical term, based on some activity that had taken place in Canada prior to his departure for Tunisia: his friendship with another Canadian of Middle Eastern, of Syrian extraction, actually, named Almalki. And this information was, it appears, exaggerated beyond, as I say, what the actual facts were to make it appear as if he were known al-Qaeda. And that is exactly what the immigration law judge concluded in New York City, that he was al-Qaeda, based on this Canadian information. And he was then removed from the United States — that’s the technical term — flown, much as El-Masri was, flown by private jet to Amman, Jordan, and then taken by automobile to Damascus, Syria, where he was held by the Syrian authorities, questioned intensively, tortured for a week or two, and then held in a very small cell for nearly a year.
The important points here are that the Canadian government apparently was not advised by American authorities that the United States was going to render him to Syria, remove him to Syria. The issue since his return has been — and I think also in the lead-in there was another factual point I wanted to correct: He has sued the United States, in addition to receiving the substantial settlement with the Canadian government. He has sued the United States, and that suit is ongoing.
The issue is, did the United States have independent evidence, as it alleges, to Arar’s activities that made on a separate basis that he was al-Qaeda? Now, one, a very [inaudible] and incisive report on this matter has been rendered by a high court justice in Canada named Dennis O’Connor. It’s an excellent report, and it points to what transpired here, but the United States did not cooperate with his investigation. It did not send the officials who were involved to testify before his commission. So that’s a black hole for him, too. But based on what he did know about what had taken place in Canada, he found that there was no basis for Arar to have been considered al-Qaeda. He was a person of interest because of some of his associations, but the conclusion had not been drawn, and that information should not have been transferred to American authorities.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, a very big event took place a few days ago, where you have the conservative prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, an ally of President Bush, apologizing publicly to Maher Arar, when they announced the multimillion-dollar compensation to Maher Arar, and criticizing the Bush administration for maintaining Maher Arar on a terrorist no-fly list in the United States.
FREDERICK HITZ: That’s right. I think, actually, the prime minister — you’re quite right — he apologized to Mr. Arar. I think he felt disappointed that the United States did not clear him for travel to the United States, and it was really his minister of public safety, Stockwell Day, who had been supplied with some indication of what information the United States had, that stated that he was disappointed, and that it didn’t appear to be any different from what the Canadians had supplied and therefore exaggerated, and he felt there was no basis for him to — that is, Arar — to be continued to be kept on this no-fly list.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I mean, you’re speaking from an interesting position, Frederick Hitz. You’re the former inspector general at the CIA. How do people within the agency feel about this extraordinary term "extraordinary rendition," this practice?
FREDERICK HITZ: This is — that’s an excellent question, and I feel very strongly about it. I believe that the CIA I know, the officers I know, do not favor extraordinary rendition. They know it’s a mugs game. They know that there’s no bottom to it, and they also know that, quite frankly, in the ways these things play out — and it’s beginning to go this way — they, the officers involved, the people in the field, those people who are being called to act in this manner, they’re the ones that are going to pay the price. There’s nobody in the chain of command that really will be held accountable for this, based on past practice from Iran-Contra and other kinds of episodes. So, in my view, I am against it. I’m against extraordinary rendition on a number of grounds, principally because of the immorality of it, the illegality of it, the fact that it doesn’t work — didn’t produce anything in this case — but very importantly, very importantly, from my past, because I fear that the CIA and the officers involved in this are going to be really put through a long period of explanation and perhaps even some legal jeopardy as a consequence.
AMY GOODMAN: What about all of these cases, Frederick Hitz — and we’re going to go back to Stephen Grey in a minute — but the German prosecutors issuing the arrest warrants for 13 CIA operatives involved in the case of Khalid El-Masri? Then you have the arrest warrants in Italy, another 26 CIA agents facing prosecution for their role in the abduction of the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar off the streets of Milan.
FREDERICK HITZ: That’s — I think you’ll note that the authorities are saying it’s not at all clear to them that the persons whom they have cited, whom they subpoenaed, will appear and will actually come into the legal proceeding to defend themselves. But they are making the point — and this, I think, is the essence of your question — they are making the point in the actions they’ve taken, the magistrate in Italy and now the German prosecutor, that they’re not going to put up with this any longer. Secret prisons, extraordinary renditions are out, as far as Europe is concerned. And insofar as they continue, if they come — if those incidents of extraordinary rendition come to the attention of European governments in future, you can expect the full panoply of legal tools to be used against them.
AMY GOODMAN: So what are you doing to publicize this? Yesterday, you had a panel at the University of Virginia?
FREDERICK HITZ: Yes. What’s happened is that, as you perhaps know, the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., put on a program in Ottawa this past Monday, of which I was privileged to be a part, to discuss the excellent O’Connor report. And I would like to see if we can put on a similar program at the University of Virginia, either at the University of Virginia School of Law or through the Miller Center. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. I’ve discussed this matter with the individuals who could — people in authority who could bring this about. But I would think it would be excellent if we could get Mr. Justice O’Connor to come down to the United States, come down to Charlottesville, and tell our audience about his report, what he found and what its ramifications are. And I’m going to work very hard to bring that about.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you could get any Supreme Court justices to weigh in here, past or present?
FREDERICK HITZ: I’m sorry? I didn’t catch that.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you could get any Supreme Court justices to weigh in here?
FREDERICK HITZ: Well, I don’t know. But I think your question’s a good one. I think this is a matter that deserves some kind of rebroadcast, if you will, some kind of publicity in the United States, because I think many Americans, with all that’s been going on in Iran and with the Democratic ascension to power in the Congress, have let the Arar matter just sort of slip by. And in the tradition of many previous Canadian official reports, this O’Connor report bears reading. It is extremely well drafted. It’s like our 9/11 Commission Report. The judge is not at all vindictive. He recognizes the very important point that Canada intelligence and law enforcement authorities have to cooperate in the fullest manner with their American counterparts on this terrorist issue. But mistakes were made, and they have to be corrected, and there has to be some accountability.
AMY GOODMAN: Frederick Hitz, I want to thank you very much for joining us and give the final word to Stephen Grey, who’s joining us from Canada, a British journalist, to help expose the whole extraordinary rendition program, particularly tracing the planes. Frederick Hitz, joining us from Virginia. There has been major developments in North Carolina, where North Carolina legislators are looking for an investigation into Aero Contractors, which is one of the contractors that has been used by the CIA to fly these planes. Final comment on that, Stephen Grey? We’re talking about CIA agents possibly being indicted. What about those that flew the torture flights?
STEPHEN GREY: Well, absolutely. But I’m [inaudible] — the CIA agents and the flight crew that took them, they’re all going be held accountable. But to some degree, these people are the witnesses to who can provide evidence of who ordered these things, and as I think, as — you know, those orders came from the very top, and those probably are the people who really should ultimately be facing legal scrutiny. As Mr. Hitz says, as you get closer to the frontline, as you do in war, you find the CIA people who did these things are often the most skeptical about their value, and they know full well what happens when you send people to a country like Syria. And I think, you know, regardless of the evidence that the CIA may have had against Maher Arar when he was sent to Syria, you know, we all know intelligence reports often turn out to be erroneous. They probably believed he was al-Qaeda, but that doesn’t excuse sending him to a country like Syria. He was a Canadian citizen. If they were going to deport him anywhere, legally speaking, he should have been sent back to Canada, and no one with a straight face who knows about these things can tell you that if you send someone to Syria, they’re not going to get tortured. So they knew full well what was going to happen here. So the key issue is, you know, how could they make that decision, and why were they choosing to have his interrogation take place in Syria, you know, regardless of what they believed at the time?
FREDERICK HITZ: I agree with that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will link on our website to the unusual interaction between the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, questioning Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, where he asked him that very question in very heated fashion — how could you send him to a place that your own government has said is responsible for torture? — and Alberto Gonzales said something along the lines of "We had assurances." I want to thank you, Stephen Grey, award-winning investigative journalist — his book is called Ghost Plane — and Frederick Hitz, a former inspector general at the Central Intelligence Agency, now professor at University of Virginia School of Law. We will follow the developments.