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Globalizing Torture: Ahead of Brennan Hearing, International Complicity in CIA Rendition Exposed

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As counterterrorism czar John Brennan appears on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing to head the CIA, a new report provides a detailed look at global involvement in the agency’s secret program of prisons, rendition and torture in the years after 9/11. In “Globalizing Torture,” the Open Society Justice Initiative says 54 countries helped the CIA detain 136 people, the largest tally to date. The report’s author, Amrit Singh, joins us to discuss her findings and Brennan’s role in the expansive program she’s documented. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama’s nominee to the CIA, John Brennan, is heading to Capitol Hill today for his confirmation hearing. Obama’s counterrorism czar is expected to be grilled on the administration’s secret drone program and the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas. On Wednesday, the Obama administration agreed to show two congressional panels the stated legal rationale for the assassinations after Democratic Senator Ron Wyden suggested he would consider filibustering Brennan’s nomination. Brennan will also likely be asked about his time at the CIA during George W. Bush’s administration.

Four years ago, Brennan was a rumored pick for the CIA job when Obama was first elected, but he was forced to withdraw from consideration amid protests over his public support for the CIA’s policies of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and extraordinary rendition program. In 2005, Brennan said on PBS that he was, quote, “intimately familiar” with cases of rendition and that he considered the practice “an absolutely vital tool” in combating terrorism. This is Margaret Warner on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer interviewing John Brennan.

MARGARET WARNER: So, was Secretary Rice correct today when she called it a vital tool in combating terrorism?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think it’s an absolutely vital tool. I have been intimately familiar now over the past decade with the cases of rendition that the U.S. government has been involved in, and I can say without a doubt that it has been very successful as far as producing intelligence that has saved lives.

MARGARET WARNER: So is it—are you saying, both—in two ways, both in getting terrorists off the streets and also in the interrogation?

JOHN BRENNAN: Yes. The rendition is the practice or the process of rendering somebody from one place to another place. It is moving them. And U.S. government will frequently facilitate that movement from a country to another.

MARGARET WARNER: Why would you not, if this—if you have a suspect who’s a danger to the United States, keep it—keep him in the United States’ custody? Is it because we want another country to do the dirty work?

JOHN BRENNAN: No, I don’t think that’s it at all. Also, I think it’s rather arrogant to think that we’re the only country that respects human rights. I think that we have a lot of assurances from these countries that we hand over terrorists to that they will in fact respect human rights. And there are different ways to gain those assurances. But also, let’s say an individual goes to Egypt, because they’re an Egyptian citizen. And Egyptians then have a longer history in terms of dealing with them, and they have family members and others that they can bring in, in fact, to be part of the whole interrogation process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was John Brennan speaking to PBS’s Margaret Warner in 2005.

Brennan’s confirmation hearing comes as new information is coming to light about the extent of the secret rendition program after the 9/11 attacks. A new report by the Open Society Justice Initiative names at least 136 individuals who were allegedly subjected to secret detention and rendition.

AMY GOODMAN: The report is called “Globalizing Torture.” It also identifies 54 foreign governments that aided the United States in these operations. The countries include Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

One country that’s not listed is India, but the report is making headlines there, too, because, for more, we’re joined now by the report’s author, Amrit Singh. She’s senior legal officer at the National Security and Counterterrorism program at the Open Society Justice Initiative. The full name of her new report is “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition.” She’s co-author with Jameel Jaffer of the book Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond_. And interestingly, the new torture report has become news in India. The human-rights-secret-detention-amrit-singh”>headline in The Times of India reads, quote: “Prime Minister’s Daughter Blows Whistle on 54 Nations that Helped U.S. Detention Programme.” Another website headline, their story: “PM’s Daughter Takes on CIA over Torture.” That’s right, our guest, Amrit Singh, is the daughter of India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

Amrit Singh, welcome to Democracy Now!

AMRIT SINGH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about John Brennan first. He goes to Capitol Hill today for his confirmation hearing. You wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times. What do you think he should be asked? What do you think of the nomination of John Brennan to be head of the CIA?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I think John Brennan should be asked what he meant when he said that he was intimately familiar with cases of rendition and that rendition is an absolutely vital tool in combating terrorism, because by the time Brennan made that statement in December of 2005, a number of people had been rendered to foreign governments where they were tortured. By December of 2005, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad al-Zery had been rendered to Egypt and subjected to electric shock. By December of 2005, Maher Arar, a Canadian national, had been rendered to Syria and subjected to being locked up in a tiny grave-like cell and beaten with cables. By December 2005, a number of other individuals, including Khalid El-Masri, had been rendered. Khalid El-Masri was captured and kidnapped in Macedonia and transferred to Afghanistan and abused. A recent court decision by the European Court of Human Rights found that Khalid El-Masri’s treatment by the CIA amounted to torture. So I think that John Brennan has a lot of explaining to do as to what exactly he meant.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Brennan also said in that clip that the government sought assurances from the other countries to which these individuals were rendered that human rights would be respected. But you, in your report, clearly indicate that mere blanket assurances are insufficient to be able to deal with the—obviously, with the kind of abuse that occurred here.

AMRIT SINGH: That’s correct. Maher Arar was transferred to Syria after assurances were obtained from Syria not to torture him, but he was tortured nonetheless. Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad al-Zery were transferred from Sweden to Egypt with assurances from Egypt not to torture him, but they were tortured. They were subjected to electric shocks. So, I think that the—there’s a wealth of information in the public domain that shows that these diplomatic assurances in fact don’t work. High-level Bush administration officials themselves acknowledged that there’s only so much you can do once a prisoner is out of your custody. So, the onus really is on the Obama administration to explain what is its policy and how is it going to work.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of John Brennan as the—as President Obama’s nominee?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I think he has many questions to answer. I think that rendition is obviously, as documented in this report, the source of grave human rights violations. It damaged the United States’s reputation around the world. It coopted as many as 54 governments into a torture program. It was flagrantly illegal. And I think it really requires a serious examination by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to go to another clip of John Brennan in 2006 when he appeared on PBS’s Frontline and was questioned about the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies.

JOHN BRENNAN: The war, or the campaign against terrorism, is going to be a long one, and that the opposition, whether it be al-Qaeda or whether it be Iraq, doesn’t play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules, and therefore, you know, the U.S., in some areas, has to take off the gloves. And I think that’s entirely appropriate. I think we do have to take off the gloves in some areas, but within bounds, and at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reason, and with full understanding of what the consequences of that might be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This issue of John Brennan saying the U.S. has to take off the gloves, given the necessity of the fight against the war on terrorism, your response?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I think that that was a sentiment that was echoed across the Bush administration. The report opens with a quote from Vice President Dick Cheney saying that we have to go to the dark side, and was repeated by a number of counterterrorism officials in the Bush administration. Well, I think that that is—the fact that this report documents as many as 136 cases of human rights violations, including torture, demonstrates what that paradigm led to. It was a paradigm that essentially ignored longstanding prohibitions against torture, that violated not only international but also domestic law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m interested—your report, in the 54 countries that you mention, mentions some countries that most Americans are not aware are cooperating in the—Zimbabwe and Iran. The particular case of Iran’s involvement in some of these renditions, could you talk about that?

AMRIT SINGH: Yes, it’s interesting. There are a number of individuals who were captured in Iran who were then handed over to Afghan authorities as part of a prisoner exchange, that then—but the Iranians must have known at the time that the—that the Afghans would hand them over to the U.S. because of the ongoing hostilities in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: So, summarize the findings in your report. It’s extremely extensive. And what surprised you most as you did this research, Amrit?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I think, at a very basic level, just the—the horrific kinds of abuse that was meted out by the United States and its partners to the human beings who were subjected to these operations, that of course stands out, but also just the scale and sweep of these operations, the number of people who were put through this and the number of governments that were coopted. And I think that, of course, the U.S. was a ringleader. This was—this was the CIA’s invention. But moral responsibility does not rest with the United States alone; it rests also with those 54 governments that were complicit in various ways.

But I should also add that the—you know, the U.S.—leaving aside the damage to its moral reputation, the U.S. also exposed itself to liability and censure worldwide, because we’re now increasingly seeing foreign courts pass judgment against the United States, as in the case of Khalid El-Masri. The European Court of Human Rights essentially found that the CIA’s treatment of him amounted to torture.

AMY GOODMAN: And just very quickly, explain his story, for people who don’t know. This was an innocent guy on a bus, a case of mistaken identity?

AMRIT SINGH: That’s correct. So Khalid El-Masri was essentially traveling on vacation in Macedonia in December of 2003, and he was abducted by Macedonian officials acting at the direction of the CIA in Macedonia, locked up, secretly detained for 23 days in Macedonian custody, and then transferred to the CIA at Skopje Airport in Macedonia. And then the CIA flew him to Afghanistan and held him for four months in further secret detention, did not permit him access to counsel or his family or a German counselor.

AMY GOODMAN: He says he was injected. He—

AMRIT SINGH: Right. He was sodomized at the airport. He was beaten. He was stripped naked, and he was subjected to a range of sexual humiliation and abuse, and ultimately, after four months, was released, without explanation, without apology, in a roadside in Albania and was sort of left to make his way home back to Germany. Khalid El-Masri has not received any kind of acknowledgment from the United States government, no apology and no compensation.

AMY GOODMAN: Very early on, Condoleezza Rice understood this was a case of mistaken identity, but they continued to hold him because what would they do with him when he got out and told what happened to him?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times, you raise the point that many of the—or, all of these people who were subjected to this kind of treatment, none of them has gotten any kind of compensation, acknowledgment from the U.S. government, nor has the government sought to prosecute any of the officials that were involved or knowledgeable about the crimes that were committed here in terms of the attacks or the abuse of these folks.

AMRIT SINGH: That’s correct. There has been virtually no accountability in the United States for these abuses. A Justice Department investigation into abuses only looked at abuses that exceeded the abuse that its own Office of Legal Counsel had authorized. And we know from the Office of Legal Counsel memos released in August of 2009 by President Obama’s administration that there was a range of horrific abuse that was specifically authorized by the Bush administration. But none of those officials have been held accountable to date.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Amrit, for joining us. And I wanted to ask, finally, on that list, very extensive list of 54 countries, India was not on the list.


AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by this?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I mean, I—I’m a researcher, I’m a lawyer. I tell the truth. And I documented what I found. So, I represented what the facts were. It’s not my—I didn’t—you know, I did the best I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, there were—what’s amazing is we’re talking about almost a third of the countries in the world that were involved.

AMRIT SINGH: That’s right, a quarter of the countries in the world. The State Department recognizes 195. Fifty-four is more than a quarter of that, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of that, these countries that have been involved, that you talk about being coopted, what were the deals that were made? And have countries come forth to say what they did?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I think that we don’t know all of the facts with respect to each government, but we do know that there were a number of bilateral agreements that were signed, and there was also a NATO framework within many of—within which many of these agreements were executed. We know, for example, in Poland there have been reports of an agreement that was arrived at between the Polish authorities and the United States. Now, the—apparently, there was actually a document in Poland that bore the signature of the Polish official but not the American official. The Americans might have been more careful in not committing their signatures to writing. But nonetheless, these were very secret operations that could not have been implemented without very high-level authorizations from top officials in all of these governments.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And have any of the governments sought to come clean and to hold their officials responsible for what maybe a prior administration in that country did?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, it’s interesting that Canada has apologized to Maher Arar for its involvement in his extraordinary rendition to Syria. Canada supplied faulty intelligence to the United States that led to the rendition of Arar to Syria. But there—by and large, most governments have not owned up to the truth. And there is evidence in the public domain to suggest that the United States has exerted diplomatic pressure on a lot of governments not to disclose information about this highly classified operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there should be war crimes trials in this country?

AMRIT SINGH: Well, I think that there needs to be some measure of accountability. I mean, there has been virtually none. And that’s something that cannot stand. Not only must officials be held accountable, but there needs to be further disclosure about the extent of these operations, the victims. There needs to be acknowledgement by the United States. And it’s—if Canada can apologize and compensate Maher Arar, why is it that the United States, which was the principal ringleader in all of these operations, cannot issue a similar apology, not only to Maher Arar, but a number of other victims like Khalid El-Masri who were wrongfully abducted and tortured?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Amrit Singh, senior legal officer at the National Security and Counterterrorism program at the Open Society Justice Initiative. The new report is called “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition.” And we’ll link to it at This Democracy Now!, We’ll be back in a minute.

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