Shocking Story of How the US Ignored International Law to Become World's Kidnapper and Torturer
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The following is an excerpt from A Secret History of Torture (Counterpoint Press, 2012).
Two days after the 9/11 attacks, during a meeting of Bush’s closest advisers, Cofer Black declared the country’s enemies must be left with ‘flies walking across their eyeballs’. It was an image of death so striking that Black became known among the President’s inner circle as ‘the flies on the eyeballs guy’. Unlike its allies – the UK, France, Spain and Israel – the US had little experience of serious terrorist attacks on its own territory, nor any understanding of the need for a patient response. Bush was impressed by Black. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, could see that the President wanted to kill somebody. The problem, as successive attorneys general had warned one president after another, was that they did not enjoy unfettered powers of life and death over the nation’s enemies. The CIA had been banned from carrying out assassinations since 1976.
The President turned to his Department of Defense and found that it had no cogent, off-the-shelf plan for responding to an attack of this nature on the United States. The CIA, on the other hand, did have something in its arsenal: it had the rendition program.
Since 1987, the CIA had been quietly apprehending terrorists and ‘rendering’ them to the US for prosecution, without any regard for lawful extradition processes. In 1995, President Bill Clinton – apparently with the full encouragement of his vice-president, Al Gore – agreed that a number of terrorists could be taken to a third country, including countries known to use torture, a process that would come to be known as extraordinary rendition.
Mike Scheuer, the CIA officer who started that programme, faced few objections from Clinton’s national security advisers when he began taking prisoners to Egypt, where they could be interrogated under torture. ‘They just didn’t want to know what we were doing,’ he says.
Before 9/11, however, there were limits. In 1998, for example, the CIA had drawn up a plan to kidnap Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and take him to Egypt. A shipping container was installed inside a Hercules aircraft and inside that was bolted a dentist’s chair fitted with restraints. The CIA were all ready to go when, at the last moment, the FBI persuaded Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, that bin Laden’s inevitable death at the hands of the Egyptians would be an act of murder and that US officials would be responsible. Reno vetoed the plan.
By 13 September, with a still-unknown number of Americans dead and the President wanting action, all such legal squeamishness had vanished. President Bush and Dick Cheney both believed al-Qaida had succeeded because government lawyers had been expecting the CIA to do its job with one hand tied behind its back. Bush said as much to his attorney general, John Ashcroft, when he warned him: ‘Don’t ever let this happen again.’ So when the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, went to brief the President a few days after 9/11 and began to talk of the need to gather evidence for future prosecutions, he was promptly silenced by Ashcroft. Prosecutions were beside the point, Ashcroft said. All that mattered was stopping another attack.
That night, Cofer Black locked himself away at his office at Langley and within five days had drawn up plans for the CIA’s response. It would entail a vast expansion of the rendition programme. Hundreds of al-Qaida suspects would be tracked down and abducted from their homes and hiding places in eighty different countries. The agency would decide who was to be killed and who was to be kept alive in a network of secret prisons, outside the US, where they would be systematically tormented until every one of their secrets had been delivered up. The United States had been blindsided by al-Qaida on 9/11 and that situation would not be permitted to occur a second time.