A former CIA official has confirmed suspicions that dozens of terror suspects have been flown to jails in Middle Eastern countries where torture is routinely practised, and without reference to courts of law.
Michael Scheuer, who once headed the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and left the CIA last November after a 22-year career, said the practice, known as “extraordinary rendition”, was seen by the US as a key tactic in its war on terror.
“The bottom line is getting anyone off the streets who is involved in acts of terrorism is a worthwhile activity,” he told the BBC’s File On 4 programme.
Mr Scheuer said the operation was authorised at the highest levels of the CIA and the White House and was approved by their lawyers.
“The practice of capturing people and taking them to second or third countries arose because the Executive assigned the job of dismantling terrorist cells to the CIA.
“When the agency came back and said ‘Where do you want to take them?’ the message was ‘That’s your job’.”
He added: “The idea that this is a rogue operation that someone has dreamt up is just absurd. I personally have no problem with doing any operation as long as it’s justified legal by my superiors.”
UN convention violated
The former CIA officer acknowledged that some of the suspects sent to places such as Egypt could then be tortured.
But he said: “It wouldn’t be us torturing them and I think there is a lot of Hollywood involved with our portrayal of torture in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“Human rights is a very flexible concept… It depends how hypocritical you want to be on a particular day.”
Human rights campaigners, however, find it difficult to reconcile rendition with President Bush’s claims of upholding the United Nations convention against torture. It says: “No state shall expel, return or exradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
Mr Scheuer was among other ex-CIA officers who told File On 4 that as well as sending people to Guantanamo Bay, both the CIA and the US military were sending dozens of others to prisons in countries such as Jordan, Syria and Egypt.
The investigation looks at the dangers of sending potentially innnocent people to these regimes where, according to the Americans’ own State Department, torture is readily practised.
It hears from a Canadian man called Maher Arar, who was stopped by US officials when travelling through New York’s JFK airport in September 2002 and sent to Syria where he was held for a year. He says he was brutally tortured.
The reason for his arrest was information passed to the US by Canada, linking him to a terrorist suspect in Ottawa.
Mr Arar is a Syrian national by birth but holds a Canadian passport. Once in Syria, he says he was kept in a tiny cell for over 10 months at the Damascus headquarters of the Syrian secret police.
One day, after 18 hours of torture, he falsely confessed to having been to Afghanistan.
“The interrogator said: ‘What is this?’ I said: ‘A cable’. He said: ‘Open your hand,’ and he hit it. The pain was awful.
“I was crying. Then he told me to open my left hand and he hit me. Then he would ask me more questions.
“An hour or two later he’d put me in a room and I could hear people being tortured. They’d be saying: ‘Oh Allah! Oh God!’ I could hear people screaming.”
Mr Arar was released and flown home to Ottawa three days short of a year after being placed in Syrian custody.
No legal charges have ever been brought against him in either country. In Canada, where his case has caused a political outcry, a public inquiry is under way.
An Australian named Mamdouh Habib was sent to Egypt in October 2001 by US authorities after being captured in Pakistan.
He was held in Egypt for six months, and said he was subjected to extreme torture involving electric shocks, before he was sent onwards to Guantanamo.
He was released last month and flown home to Australia.
The programme also reveals that an official investigation is under way in Italy into suspicions that an Islamic militant was kidnapped off the streets of Milan and flown to Egypt by American agents.
Critics of the extraordinary rendition policy told File On 4 that British citizens have been arrested abroad and moved by the US to Guantanamo and to Arab prisons as a result of the sharing of intelligence with British security services or the British police.
Wahab al-Rawi, a British businessman, also claims he was arrested in the Gambia and questioned by American agents in November 2002, after the US was tipped off by British authorities.
Wahab was freed but his brother and a business partner were flown on to Guantanamo, where they are still being held.
It is known that the American civilian executive jets used to transport the prisoners around the world often pass through British airspace and use British airports. The File On 4 team discovered one was in Glasgow on Monday.
A Foreign Office spokesperson told the programme it totally condemned torture but could not rule out using any reliable intelligence wherever it came from if it was going to save lives.
The US Department of Defense, the CIA, and the State Department all declined requests for interviews.
File On 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 8 February, 2005 at 2000 GMT.