Stephen Grey is an award-winning investigative journalist, based in London, who has contributed to the New York Times, 60 Minutes, CNN, Newsweek, the BBC and many international publications. He is the author of "Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program". On January 19, 2006, I had the privilege of speaking to Mr. Grey by telephone. What follows are my interiew notes as corrected by Mr. Grey.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on September 11, 2001, and where were you on July 7, 2005?
Stephen Grey: On September the 11th, I was at Cambridge for a conference on organized crime. I was sitting in the quad at Cambridge College, talking to John Moscow, a New York County Assistant District Attorney, and then saw that I got 5 new messages on my voice mail in rapid succession. It was my office telling me to return to London at once, and then to get to New York as soon as I could. It took 5 days, but I got to New York; at that time I was working for London's Sunday Times. I ran back to John Moscow, told him that planes had struck the World Trade Center, and headed off... he called out "You are joking about this, right?" and I told him that I was afraid I wasn't. After I got to the U.S.A., I stayed for several weeks, seeing the aftermath and response. One felt that this may be the beginning of World War III, perhaps, and most people were just not sure what was going on.
On July 7, 2005, I was at home in South London, and I first heard about the subway and bus bombings on the internet. At that time, I was working for the New York Times. I got on a bicycle and cycled to the scene of the bus bombing in London's Taverstock Square-- there was of course no other way to get around, as the transit system came to a stop. One could see blood everywhere, which indicated to me this was a suicide bombing, as I had seen them in Iraq the previous year.
The Talking Dog: How often have you been to Iraq, and do you speak Arabic?
Stephen Grey: I have been to Iraq about ten times, since the beginning of 2004. And I am at the "still learning" stage in my knowledge of Arabic.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me your personal impressions of the people you interviewed for "Ghost Plane", and I am particularly interested in your impressions of former detainees and of participants in the rendition program (pilots, interrogators, "snatchers", etc.)? In the course of your travels in researching the book, did any locales make a particular impression on you (and, at any point, did you feel yourself in any kind of personal danger)?
Stephen Grey: You are told that the people who are suspected terrorists are trained to lie and deceive. But I've been struck, at least meeting those who have ben released, about how straight and accurate they have been. Also, some hae an amazing capacity to forgive and separate their anger from those responsible for their detention and treatment and abuse from the United States in general. Some people might want to seek revenge in these circumstances, but others I've talked to seem to have big enough characters not to feel this way.
As to the CIA officers I spoke to, again, I was impressed with their honesty. They had no illusions that the people being sent to Egypt, Syria or Morocco would be tortured-- they were realistic. They made it perfectly clear to the White House and the Justice Department that these people were tortured, but the higher ups in the American government proceeded to continue doing this anyway, and then insisted that the United States did not send people to places that torture.
As to places that made an impression, Egypt in particular is very striking. I was struck by the surreal nature of the detention system-- one can be a tourist on a sailing boat on the Nile at Falluca, and as you sail you see a building with watchtowers, which is one of the most notorious destinations in the war on terror-- the Al Tora prison. But if you don't know what's happening, you might not even take notice of it.
As to personal danger, I certainly felt danger in Iraq, though not much elsewhere. I must say that I worry a great deal about some of the people I've talked to in these countries, and in particular, whether they've made the right decision by speaking publicly.
The Talking Dog: Among the many services performed by your book (and your reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere) is a dissemination of some of the flight logs of CIA aircraft used in the rendition program. This is a similar undertaking as in Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson's "Torture Taxi", although Trevor Paglen told me he got interested in this from a starting point of looking at American secret military bases and planespotters and as a geographer; you of course, are a professional journalist. What got you started on this line of inquiry? To what extent did you rely on publicly available sources?
Stephen Grey: There just are not that many public sources. I was in Washington, DC after 9/11, and it was only then that I heard about the rendition program, and from Porter Goss of all people, then the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and later Director of the CIA. When Guantanamo Bay opened up, someone at the CIA told me that Guantanamo was just the tip of the iceberg-- that there was a much larger network of prisons, jails around the world associated with the rendition program.
But the question becomes how to investigate this, given its immense secrecy. An opening occurred when I heard of one plane involved in the rendition from Sweden. Then the trail was picked up. I found my own "Deep Throat" who could provide me with flight plans of the CIA jet, and then I was able to identify a fleet of planes, and could trace their involvement. The story, in fact, became following these planes, because with this data, we could prove (1) that the stories of renditions told by prisoners who were released or got lawyers at Guantanamo were true, as their accounts matched flight plans precisely, (2) by looking at a fleet of aircraft, we could show that it was the CIA itself doing these things, and (3) I spoke to some of the pilots, who confirmed that they in fact worked for the CIA.
The Talking Dog: Do you have an impression of something bigger than even the extraordinary rendition program (and places like Cairo, Bucharest, Amman, Rabat, Guantanamo Bay, Baghdad, Kabul and so forth, as well as Europe and the US) from your viewings of the flight logs (I note, for example, that the planes' destinations included such places as Tel Aviv, New Delhi, Djibouti, Algiers, Nairobi, Mauritania, Libya, Brasilia, Moscow, Fiji, Ethiopia and Sudan). Some are presumably fuel stops, for example, and others involve flights that presumably have nothing to do with the rendition program; but is there anything more solid about any of the others (Libya and Sudan in particular)? Is the extraordinary rendition program bigger than any of us imagine?
Stephen Grey: These locations show us that the movement of these planes is a CIA operation. The planes visit places like Camp Peary, or "the farm", the CIA's training base. They also visit Guantanamo, Kabul, Cairo... even Iran... they fit a pattern. At other times when not involved in renditions, the planes ferried intelligence chiefs around, such as those from Sudan, not to mention taking interrogators TO Guantanamo, such as from Libya. At this point, there are clearly a lot of people who are missing and who have not yet been track down; some of them may well relate to still unknown renditions.
As to the planes visiting Tel Aviv, you will notice that they always go via Cyprus, lest they offend the sensibilities of the Arab governments from countries they have just come from. But certainly, the logs of the planes' movements gives us an overview of current action, and rendition is only a part of this. Many more details are yet to emerge. For example, these planes were observed in Venezuela at the time there was talk of a CIA led coup planned against Hugo Chavez. So we don't necessarily know the full scope. I published the planes' flight logs in the hope that others may dig in and uncover further details of this story.
The Talking Dog: You document how the origins of the extraordinary rendition program-- ostensibly a matter of bureaucratic expedience for a CIA that was untethered from strict rule of law compliance and cooperation with the FBI and the American military in earlier versions of the "extraordinary rendition" program to bring suspects to justice in the United States, or eventually, to their own countries (even if those countries had abysmal human rights records)-- evolved to being a world-wide kidnapping operation to bring suspected terrorists in for questioning under torture (which is, of course, illegal everywhere, except perhaps these days in the United States itself, where these "operations" never take place)... guilt or innocence have no relevance to this, which explains why men like Maher Arar and Al-Masri and others, later determined to be completely innocent of anything, are ensnared by it. This is, of course, a huge matter of public outrage in Europe, which of course, is far more tangentially involved than the United States which drives it. Do you have an impression of why this isn't a bigger deal in the United States? Are we not getting the news, or do we simply not care, insofar as its invariably Moslem males and foreigners (even Padilla, a citizen, converted to Islam)? Any comment or impressions about this?
Stephen Grey: The United States feels that it is at war. And in the case of Iraq, it certainly is. That attitude of war-- that if you question the commander in chief about the conduct of the war or anything else, you may be undermining the operation of soldiers, is certainly a big factor in American attitudes.
The Talking Dog: Let me continue on the last question which concerns your discussion of "the torture lie", to wit, the repeated American assurances that we don't "do torture" (not true, as the CIA uses torture among other methods in its own proprietary prisons) and we don't send prisoners to be tortured elsewhere (again, not true, and indeed, the sobering and troubling basis for making evidence obtained from torture admissible in the recent "Military Commissions Act"). To some extent, I suppose, the American public can comfort itself and take its leaders' statements at face value, even if they know otherwise. For another, though, I repeat my assertion that as long as it's "keeping us safe", the American public believes that the end justifies the means (even gruesome tortures such as that suffered by Binyam Mohammed at the hands of American surrogates in Morocco, the abuses of Abu Ghraib, etc.) in our "post September 11th" worldview, even if the victims are ultimately proved to be "innocent"... do you have a further comment on this?
Stephen Grey: This war on terror has, by now, gone on longer than the United States involement in World War II, and will likely soon exceed the length of World War II. In a so-called "long war", you must be exceedingly careful and think about the effects long term of things that you do as a matter of knee jerk instant responses. Things that, while they may make sense in the short term to some, may damage the ultimate ability to win the war.
As to the guilt or innocence quesiton, I certainly do not believe that the CIA sent anyone they believed to be innocent to be renditioned. However, the United States government has been quite reckless as to the innocence of these people, and they are certainly picking up people with ever more tenuous connections to any kind of terrorism. This is the sort of thing that leads to a backlash that undermines the overall conduct of the war.
The Talking Dog: You devote a chapter (Chapter 8, "The Special Relationship: Our Man in Tashkent") to an unusual British diplomat, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray. Murray, of course, was quite public in protesting his government's complicity with the American government in condoning human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, and indeed, in cooperating delivering prisoners to it as part of the "war on terror" and rendition program. Although there are a smattering of diplomatic resignations in protest of the Iraq war and so forth, and certainly Murray was unusually outspoken to the point of jeopardizing his career, do you have an impression of why men like Murray are so unusual in all of this, and for the most part, U.S., U.K. and other officials by and large have not gone public with any misgivings toward these programs?
Stephen Grey: It often takes a maverick to expose uncomfortable truths. More well-balanced individuals think more about their pensions than about exposing to the public the secrets of the agencies that they work for. Whatever you think of Craig Murray, he has exposed a real problem for our foreign policies. How do you work with a govermnent, that boils its dissidents alive-- a regime that is a hangover from the old Soviet Union. And yet, you have a desperate need to use that country for bases and for its intelligence on suspected terrorists. It ends up being a pretty dirty business.
The Talking Dog: You devote another chapter (Chapter 9, "The Italian Job") to another unusual man, Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro (and his team), who has pressed on with the Abu Omar kidnapping case in Milan, and may well take it to trial, with defendants including over two dozen American intelligence operatives and some Italian intelligence operatives for their role in snatching Abu Omar off the streets of Milan and hailing him off to Egypt where he was interrogated and tortured. Like Murray, Spataro seems unusual, although there are, certainly, investigations in Germany and elsewhere, he seems to have taken this the furthest, even in apparent defiance of his own government. I'll ask the same type of question as the previous one: do you have an impression of why men like Spataro are so unusual? Do you get the feeling as to how much public support Spataro has for what he is doing?
Stephen Grey: Italy is a special case because of its relationship with the Mafia. Italy has a judicial system that invests its examining magistrates like Spataro with complete independence from the government. These prosecutors are obligated to investigate regardless of political consequences. I know of no other country that has a system like that. Certainly, Mr. Spataro himself hits with a straight bat. In the case of the Abu Omar kidnapping, the magistrates and police in Milan felt especially betrayed, becayse they were actually investigating Abu Omar as a suspected Islamist themselves, and intended to make a case to prosecute him in a court of law. Instead, CIA officers, including some with whom they themselves were working directly, snatched Abu Omar from right under their noses.
The Talking Dog: You conclude the book with the same kind of warning that Trevor Paglen and Steven Miles told me about torture, i.e. a torture effects the torturer (and by extention, his or her society) just as it effects the victim; you have documented a world-wide, industrial scale torture network run by the American government and paid for by the American taxpayer; do you share their sentiments about what this all says about our society, as it becomes more and more inured to torture?
Stephen Grey: Well, certainly for those who witness it-- the victims and the perpetrators or witnesses in the room-- torture is clearly in no way a banal business. What struck me is the comment of an American military officer: he said that if we need to torture, we should do it ourselves and not hand the dirty work over to others-- that is the coward's way out. It is certainly striking how we can shut our eyes to what is being done in our name, and hide behind legal language and techicalities, indeed, to try to pretend that we are not torturing, when everyone really knows that we are. If you shove someone’s head under water and make them believe they are going to die by drowning-- as a one former CIA officer described it to me-- there is no question that this is real torture.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you that I didn't, or anything else that the public needs to know about the extraordinary rendition program of the other things we talked about?
Stephen Grey: The rendition program does not involve just the CIA-- it involves the American military as well... for example, the "repatriation" of detainees from Afghanistan to their home countries is effectively a rendition program. There is a huge category of missing people. We only know those who have been released or gotten a lawyer at Guantanamo-- a very small group of people. The CIA has talked about figures in the low hundreds. I think the true figure may be much higher.
The Talking Dog: I join my readers in thanking Stephen Grey for that eye opening interview, and I commend everyone to take a look at "Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program".
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainee Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, and with author and geographer Trevor Paglen on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, to be of interest.
Excellent interview ... God help us all ... We The Sheelpe.
Posted by Granny at January 28, 2007 3:13 AM