Friday, February 16, 2007

US torture tactics

US torture tactics
February 16, 2007 TheCourierMail NewsComAu

WHAT is acceptable in the fight against Osama bin Laden and Islamic extremists? It is legitimate for US agents to snatch terror suspects off the streets of Pakistan or Italy and fly them in small jets to Syria, Egypt and Uzbekistan for torture and interrogation?

This is not hypothetical. It is what happened to Sydney man Mamdouh Habib. There were no charges, no warrants – it was secret and outside the rule of US and international law.

In Ghost Plane, British journalist Stephen Grey shows how the CIA tactic of "extraordinary rendition" is both immoral and counter-productive.

Grey, who has worked for Britain's The Sunday Times, the BBC and The New York TImes, helped expose the rendition program in which suspects were shuttled around the globe.

Some of these were big fish, such as September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Others, including Habib, were small fry. Many were innocents, like Canadian computer engineer Maher Arar and German car salesman Khaled el-Masri.

They were taken in cases of mistaken identity or because of casual acquaintances with other suspects.

This is a compelling and fast-paced read. Grey's account compares with Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men as a prodigious piece of detective work.

After identifying the registration numbers of more than 20 rendition planes, he used a secret source with air traffic control data to gather 12,000 flight logs of Gulfstream jets, pictured, and 737s. These were operated by CIA front companies – including Premier Executive and Aero Contractors – and flown by pilots using false names.

The account benefits from the fact that Grey is a disciplined, self-effacing reporter who readily acknowledges others – including Sweden's Channel 4 and New York Times reporter Margot Williams – who helped uncover the CIA "gulag".

The book opens with a description of the basement of the Syrian secret police's "Palestine Branch" interrogation centre. It is called "The Grave"thanks to its coffin-like cells. with barely enough room to lie down.

The torture masters here employ a device called the "German chair", an empty metal frame used to stretch a prisoner's spine to near breaking point. Moroccan jailers allegedly used a scalpel to cut the genitals off Ethiopian student Binyam Mohamed. While incarcerated in Cairo, Mamdouh Habib was placed in a cell which filled with water until it reached his neck. Egyptian Abu Omar became incontinent after he was hung upside down and given electric shocks to his genitals. Worse still, there is evidence that some prisoners in Uzbekistan were boiled alive.

In this way, the US outsourced torture and gained intelligence through extreme methods its own agents were not able to use.

Yet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was claiming, in December 2005, that "the US has not transported anyone . . . to a country when we believe he will be tortured".

There are weasel words here – Washington could fall back on assurances from Arab dictatorships that they would not torture.

Basically it was an outright lie.

Grey's case is made stronger by the fact that he is not a one-eyed polemicist in the mould of John Pilger. He concedes some extremists – the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Jemaah Islamiyah chief Hambali – have to be taken out of circulation.

But he argues persuasively that this should be done within the legal systems of the US and its allies. As for outsourced torture, the author says electrodes and whips hardly produce the sort of reliable information needed to safeguard the West.

It breaks a cardinal rule which is "to maintain control of the individuals you are debriefing or interrogating".

In Grey's view, "by handing over the critical gathering of information to . . . the secret police of the Middle East, a great deal of the intelligence was rendered useless".

Thus Habib's confession that he was involved in Al-Qaeda is ultimately unreliable. The fact that he is free in Australia right now bears that out.

Add to this the fact that a tortured militant is one possessed with a burning desire for revenge.

But Grey's central argument is that the key task in the war on terror is "the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world". Here, the West attempts to take the high moral ground and use its liberal values and principles to inspire people from the Middle East.

But by indulging in backdoor dealings with Arab torturers, the US and its allies have been shown up as two-faced and hypocritical.

The only criticisms of this book are merely peripheral. It has a woefully inadequate index, which also turns out to be inaccurate.

Some of the listings for Mamdouh Habib turn out to be references to another prisoner, Mullah Habibukullah, and a senior Egyptian official, General Habib al-Adly.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Grey's work is that it has already produced results.

The US is in the process of closing its secret jails and bringing its most dangerous prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, where at least they have access to the US legal system.