Web of Deceit

Thursday 5 July 2012

Some were grabbed off the streets, blindfolded and bundled into the back of a car. Others were detained at airports and taken away by force on small private jets, often to secret locations in countries known for torture. Extraordinary rendition, a kind of state-sanctioned kidnapping that breaches international law, became a popular method used by US authorities to capture terror suspects in the years following the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks. But only now are full details about the practice, and the many corporations that have profited from it, beginning to emerge.

In recent weeks human rights group Reprieve has been publicising some of the private companies that helped organise the renditions, most carried out under the authority of the George W. Bush administration between 2001 and 2008. Among the firms are military contractors such as Virginia-based DynCorp, paid to organise the logistics of rendition flights to places like Thailand, Egypt, Syria and Morocco. But there are also less conspicuous firms that played a key role, some with strong UK connections. One is Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), an IT firm that has held contracts with the NHS and Transport for London.

“The role played by the prime contracting companies – DynCorp and CSC – was extremely significant,” says Crofton Black, a Reprieve investigator. “They basically ran a significant proportion of the entire project in terms of helping move people around between detention sites. The various operating companies that provided the airplanes and crews are significant too, because it’s unlikely these guys didn’t know what was happening in their planes.”

According to Reprieve, court documents show that CSC organised rendition flights on behalf of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to carry prisoners between a number of locations, including the notorious Guantánamo Bay detention camp and secret “black sites” in North Africa, South East Asia and Eastern Europe. It is alleged that the prisoners were held incommunicado and tortured during lengthy interrogations. CSC, which turned over £10.2 billion in 2011, has a string of British investors, including Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and Prudential.

Earlier this year, Reprieve wrote and asked CSC to sign its “zero tolerance for torture” pledge promising that it would not be involved in rendition, secret detention and torture in the future. The company declined, saying that individual pledges on specific topics were “not within the framework” of its existing corporate responsibility programme. Reprieve is now writing to investors in the firm asking them to “confirm whether investing in companies implicated in torture is compatible with their ethical commitments.”

“CSC has explicitly refused to rule out taking on such missions in the future,” Black says. “It’s fine for the investors to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that ‘we didn’t know such missions were going on in 2005.’ But they can’t say that anymore. So they have to come to come to terms with the fact that they are investing in a company that has basically made a commitment not to honour international law, which is effectively what CSC refusing to sign the zero tolerance for torture pledge means.”

At the same time as details about private companies’ involvement in extraordinary rendition continue to emerge, new information about the scale of Britain’s role in the programme has also been revealed. In the wake of the civil war in Libya last year, documents were uncovered showing in 2004 MI6 had helped US authorities abduct Libyan dissident Abdelhakim Belhadj and his pregnant wife in Bangkok, where they were flown to Tripoli and abused by Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police.

Belhadj is now suing MI6 and then-foreign secretary Jack Straw, a serving Blackburn MP, for complicity in torture and misfeasance in public office. Government sources say MI6’s role in rendition was part of “ministerially authorised government policy" – but Straw has gone on record claiming that "no foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time."

In other countries, too, the repercussions of extraordinary rendition continue to be felt. In March, Poland became the first EU country to indict one of its officials over CIA renditions, with the country’s prime minister promising an end to “under-the-table deals." It is alleged that a military garrison in the north-east of the Poland was used as a CIA black site where terror suspects were interrogated and subjected to waterboarding, a kind of torture that makes a person feel as if they are drowning.

Some details about the rendition programme, like the names of the terror suspects involved, are difficult to establish as they remain classified. But more revelations may soon emerge as part of a major new academic effort to pull together all of the information that has so far been published about extraordinary rendition. Launched by University of Kent academic Dr Ruth Blakeley in May, the Rendition Project is studying reams of court documents and flight logs, collating data about hundreds of victims of rendition and secret detention since 2001. It hopes to chronicle the 45 countries, 6500 flights and 140 aircraft allegedly connected to the CIA renditions programme.

“I don’t think the world is very well informed about the types of things that governments in the US and UK do,” Blakeley says, explaining her motivation for starting the project. “On both sides of the pond current governments don’t really want to carry out investigations [into rendition] because their own records are not that squeaky clean either.”

Prior to coming in to office in 2008, US president Barack Obama condemned many of his predecessor’s more aggressive counter-terror policies. He barred waterboarding and signed an executive order entitled "Ensuring Lawful Interrogations," designed to increase oversight. But he didn’t outlaw extraordinary renditions. Obama has also significantly heighted the use of unmanned military drones, remotely controlled aircraft that are used to bomb suspected militants in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. Some argue that, to avoid using the costly and controversial rendition method, Obama has favoured drone strikes – killing rather than capturing.

“It’s expensive to detain people in prison,” Blakeley says. “A lot of people say drone attacks are Obama’s preference because you just get rid of the people and you don’t have all the messy stuff afterwards to deal with... It avoids the public outcry around rendition.”

London-based human rights group Cage Prisoners, founded by Birmingham-born Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo detainee, believes rendition is still happening today but on a lesser scale. The group, which campaigns to raise awareness about individuals held extra-judicially as part of the so-called War on Terror, argues public inquiries into extraordinary rendition are the only way to redress the abuses of international law that became commonplace after 2001.

“There’s no way that we can adequately compensate those who had these things happen to them,” says Asim Qureshi, executive director at Cage Prisoners. “In the grand scheme of things, for those people inquiries mean nothing, because they’ve already had their lives ruined by renditions.

“But for the future they become important, because this is effectively the way the human rights industry can fight back – by bringing these legal cases, by having the process of accountability, and by really placing the emphasis back on due process and the rule of law.”

Torture by proxy

Extraordinary rendition is thought to have begun in the mid-1990s under the authority of Bill Clinton’s US government. It was developed as a method to track down and dismantle militant Islamic organisations in the Middle East, particularly Al Qaeda, and rapidly escalated under the presidency of George W. Bush following the terror attacks in New York on 11 September, 2001.

The number of people who have been subject to extraordinary rendition is not known, with estimates varying from 100 to several thousand. Up to 30 innocent men are thought to have been captured and transported after being mistakenly identified through what has been called "erroneous renditions," according to the Washington Post.

Human rights groups say rendition is “torture by proxy” and argue transferring terror suspects to third-party countries known for brutal interrogation techniques is part of a deliberate strategy to avoid American legal standards. This is prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the US in 1992.

A public inquiry into British security forces’ role in the mistreatment of terrorism suspects since 9/11 – including involvement in extraordinary rendition – was announced by the government in 2010. However, due to ongoing police investigations it was cancelled in January this year. In a statement, justice minister Ken Clarke said: "The government fully intends to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry, once all police investigations have concluded, to establish the full facts and draw a line under these issues."

Liverpool FC link

A private jet owned by Phillip Morse, vice-president of Liverpool FC’s parent company Fenway Sports Group, was hired to a firm working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) more than 55 times between 2002 and 2005. It was used to extraordinarily render terrorism suspects from locations in Europe to countries including Thailand, Malta, Egypt, Libya, Djibouti and Azerbaijan, where they were allegedly tortured during interrogation.

In 2003, Morse’s jet was used to render a Muslim cleric known as Abu Omar from Italy to Egypt. Omar, who American authorities accused of plotting terrorism, was snatched by CIA agents on a Milan street in broad daylight. He was subsequently flown to Egypt and imprisoned in Tura, 20 miles south of Cairo, where he claims he was twice raped, suffered electro shock treatment and lost the hearing in his left ear due to repeated beatings. Omar was eventually released by the Egyptian government in 2007, after a state security court ruled that his detention was “unfounded”. An Italian judge later convicted, in absentia, 23 CIA operatives over the kidnapping.

This article first appeared in issue no.934 of The Big Issue.