GHOST PLANE, The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, by Stephen Grey
Submitted by Staff on Sun, 2006-11-05 23:12.
An excerpt from the new book
The True Story of
the CIA Torture Program
by Stephen Grey
Published by St. Martin's Press
and reprinted here with permission
List Price: $25.95
LFB Price Only $16.95
You Save 35%!
Ghost Plane is the winner of the November 2006 Lysander Spooner Award for Advancing
the Literature of Liberty. For more information about the Lysander
The excerpt, below, is the Prologue of the book, Ghost Plane. Enjoy!
The True Story of the CIA Torture Program
by Stephen Grey
INSIDE THE PALESTINE BRANCH, SYRIA
DAMASCUS, SYRIA, TUESDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2002—The Sheraton Hotel boasts of its location at the hub of an ancient city. It is built around an open courtyard. On three sides a cluster of four-story buildings surround two white marble staircases that descend as if through an amphitheater to a wide shimmering swimming pool that is surrounded by deck chairs and palm trees. You can see the pool's water from the Ikonos spy satellite, orbiting 420 miles above the earth. Inside, the hotel features not only local cuisine but the English pub, Luigi's Italian pizza restaurant, and the Rumors Disco Bar nightclub, open until 3:00 A.M.
Leave behind the liveried doorman and sharp-suited businessmen and exit into the Orient. A cacophony of car and bus horns will greet you as you turn right into busy Omayad Square.
Take the right-hand exit, Addakhel Street, and go up the hill past the large headquarters of Syrian TV. At the next junction, which bridges an old railway track, turn right down Palestine Street. Then take the wide boulevard on your left. The street, you will notice, is now strangely deserted. On the right are three imposing concrete buildings, with wooden and concrete watchtowers on their corners, guarded by soldiers and others in plain clothes. All carry machine guns. By the third building is an entrance with a black metal sliding gate and a sign in English "no photography." With an "invitation" you could enter what is a large complex. Keep going through, across a courtyard into a building on your right, go through an office (the prison manager's), into a corridor, and then turn left down a short flight of winding stairs to the basement. In this imaginary journey you would now be in Syria's most feared interrogation center, the Palestine Branch.
Go farther down the corridor, past five large communal cells on each side. If the metal doors were open you would see men squatting on the concrete floors, and women and children in the final right-hand cell. Keep going, right to the end of the building, and you'll come to a sort of T junction. Ahead are two small toilets, and to your left and right are minicorridors where you will find a series of what look like monastic cells on either side. On each side there are five of them facing another five opposite, except in the far left corner, where one cell is missing and a door leads onward to some forbidden room. This makes a total of nineteen little cells. As you stand at the T junction, the cells are numbered counterclockwise, beginning with cell number 1 on your immediate right and ending with cell number 19 on your immediate left.
At this point, you'll notice the smell of uncleared toilets and the sweat of men crammed together. As you're a new visitor, it is likely you will go to an empty cell. The last cell, number 19, has recently been used for people coming in and out, so it's probably empty. As you're pushed through the door you will see that, if you are of average height and width, you can barely fit inside. The cell is three feet wide, six feet long, and seven feet high.
Welcome to the Grave, as this place is known to the inmates of a global network of prisons.
The Grave received its name because the cells are little larger than coffins. Pay close attention, because this is a key destination in the war on terror. Admittedly, it is not where President George W. Bush would take visitors on a showpiece tour, and yet here in this dungeon, on this day, December 17, 2002, are at least seven prisoners who claim to have arrived courtesy of the United States.
In charge of the center is a man named George Salloum, an officer of the Syrian military intelligence, dressed in a pair of pressed pants, a golf shirt, and a pair of fine leather shoes. He might seem an unlikely ally for the United States. By profession he is the head of interrogation of suspected terrorists at the Palestine Branch. In short, a torturer. The vice or virtue of his methods, and whether, in the war on terror, such methods may regrettably be necessary, will be examined later. But suffice for now to say Salloum extracts information, or at least confessions, by extreme force, both physical and psychological. The Palestine Branch is a house of confession.
In cell number 2 is Maher Arar, a Canadian wireless technician who was deported to Syria from New York in a private American jet. As a teenage schoolboy he once had a part-time job folding towels at that Sheraton hotel. But he had left the country at the age of seventeen and never returned—until now. He will later be found innocent of all charges. Every day, Maher is brought out of his cell to face Salloum and his team of interrogators. Among their worst methods is one known as the "German chair," so called because it is said to have been given to them by the East German secret service. It has an empty metal frame with no backrest or seat and is used to stretch the prisoner's spine to near breaking point.
Maher is spared this worst torture. He is beaten on his back, his buttocks, and his feet with a two-inch-thick electric cable. Night and day he can hear around him the screams of other prisoners. But the worst of all is the rat-infested, tiny, and solitary cell. He can barely stretch out in one direction. As a Muslim, he would like to pray toward Mecca, but no guard will tell him which direction that is. And anyway, his body can only bend one way forward, and that is toward the metal door.
There is no daylight coming into his cell, just a dim glow through a hole in the reinforced concrete ceiling. Crouching beneath it, Maher tries to make out the words from his wife, Monia, back in Canada. In a letter, passed by the Canadian consul, she had promised, "I will do whatever it takes to get you released." This was his only ray of hope. Maher tells the time by the meals that are brought to him. Once a week he is brought out to wash himself. He is held in the same cell for ten months. Later an official inquiry would find his account of physical and mental torture to be truthful.
Next door to Maher in cell number 3, is a fellow Canadian named Abdullah Almalki. Maher is accused of being a member of Al Qaeda in part because, back in Ottawa, he was a friend of Abdullah's. Now the two dare not exchange more than a whisper. Abdullah has been in his cell since May, and he will remain until August of the next year. Like Maher he is accused of membership in Al Qaeda, and like him will be cleared of all such charges.
Another prisoner is Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a forty-two-year-old German businessman from Hamburg, a father of five. An enormous bear of a man, once described as having "arms like small tree trunks," he weighed before his capture more than three hundred pounds. Now he weighs considerably less. His cell, number 13, is shorter than his body length. From now, for nearly two and half years, he will be living in this cramped position. The only time he is taken from his cell, say fellow inmates, is to be tortured.
No public charges have been made against Mohammed, but he is regarded by investigators as a key figure in the Al Qaeda cell that organized the attack on the Twin Towers—one of the key suspects behind the September 11 attacks. But, two months after those crimes, rather than questioning Mohammed in America or Germany, he was picked up at the request of the United States when he went on vacation in Morocco, just before he boarded a flight to return home. A secret report of the German government, which I obtained, confirmed that he was questioned there by American agents and then flown to Syria on December 27, also at the request of the United States. While tortured by George Salloum's men, Mohammed faced lists of questions sent directly by the CIA, the report confirmed. Mohammed's home country was complicit too in his treatment: The Germans tipped off the Americans about his travel to Morocco. They also sent lists of questions to Syria. And, just a month before our imaginary visit, officers from German intelligence and police came directly to interrogate him about his activities in Hamburg.
Three other prisoners say the Americans brought them to the Palestine Branch. In cell number 5 is a man in his thirties called Abdel; in cell number 8 is someone called Omar; and in cell number 12 is a teenager with a brother in Guant‡namo. The latter two were arrested on March 28, 2002, when a team of Pakistani and American agents stormed a Faisalabad compound being used by Abu Zubaydah, one of the alleged senior commanders of Al Qaeda. Fourteen people were in this building, and the two prisoners say that those arrested were separated and sent to different countries. Since their arrests, the prisoners say, they have both been brutally tortured. Omar says that Abu Zubaydah himself was treated the worst. In Pakistan, before their transfer, he was shown pictures of a bruised Abu Zubaydah and told: "If you don't talk, this is what will happen to you." Abdel Halim, a student also arrested in Pakistan, was on May 14 put with the other two on a U.S. plane that brought all three to Damascus. I later found indications the plane involved was a CIA-owned Gulfstream executive jet. In Syria, the torture continued, and Abdel Halim in particular seems to have gotten it the worst. "He was treated really bad. He was brought down from the interrogation room wrapped in a blanket. He was brutally beaten and couldn't walk," remembers Abdullah, whose cell was two doors down.
There are two more prisoners in this jail who had been handed over by the United States. In cell number 17 is a prisoner called Barah; in cell number 7 is Bahaa, age twenty-nine. Both say they were arrested in Pakistan and then interrogated by U.S. agents before being directly handed over to a team from Syrian intelligence.
Of course, Syria's treatment of prisoners in this way is no secret. The United States, which considers Syria to be a state sponsor of terrorism, has for a long time detailed and criticized the country's human rights abuses. President Bush would condemn the regime for its "legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin." In 2003, the State Department, quoting human rights organizations and former prisoners, would describe Syria's torture methods as including:
administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyper-extending the spine; bending the detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine.
In January 2002, Bush had declared an "axis of evil" composed of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. In May, the State Department added Syria as a candidate member of the list, and called it a "rogue state" for seeking weapons of mass destruction. But, in the war on terror, many compromises were being made.
By now, the middle of December 2002, Maher's interrogations had become less severe. There were no longer beatings with electric cables. This relative relaxation followed a series of visits by the Canadian consul that had begun on October 23. Despite this, Maher was still confined in his tiny cell, and he experienced then his worst crisis: Three times, with his mind crowded with memories, he began screaming without control.
It was just at this time, when Maher thought he could stand no more, that President Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, was visiting London on the first ever state visit by a president of Syria. In Bashar, the country had a thirty-seven-year-old leader who had been in power less than two years. He had a British wife, Asma, a twenty-seven-year-old former banker, and before being recalled to Damascus, al-Assad himself had practiced as a doctor in London for two years. Both the United States and Britain were hoping to use Bashar to woo Syria out of its isolationist and hard-line policies. Prime Minister Blair's mind, by now, was focused on winning the world's support for the forthcoming invasion of Iraq against Saddam Hussein.
At the news conference at Number 10 Downing Street, Blair gave a signal. The Syrian regime was on the right track. He spoke of the "continuing change and reform program in Syria." There was no talk in public of human rights violations, no concern about how Syria might be treating terrorist suspects. The only pressure on Syria was to become tougher.
Bashar declared: "As for the issue of terrorism, Syria is known for its fight against terrorism for the last decade, and not just for the last few years. As a country that has the experience and rejects terrorism, we put our experience at the disposal of any country which seriously wants to fight terrorism."
In this battle against terrorism, Britain was now prepared to set its differences with Syria—and with the United States—aside. Just before the press conference, in a Downing Street briefing room, Alastair Campbell, Blair's spokesman, was fending off repeated questions about a New York Times report that weekend. President Bush had signed an order, it said, to authorize the assassination, under defined circumstances, of senior Al Qaeda leadership. Journalists also asked Campbell if Britain was tolerating the use by the United States of torture. In response, Campbell said he never commented on the security policies of other countries. It was a question "that should be directed to the American authorities." The questions continued, but Campbell preferred not to elaborate.
On the evening of Tuesday, December 17, President Bashar and his wife were welcomed to a banquet by the Lady Mayoress of London. Asma had proved a hit with the media. Scotland's Daily Record said her style had "earned comparisons with Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana." On the menu was gravadlax with quail egg for starters, followed by canon of lamb with minted bŽarnaise sauce, passion fruit soufflŽ glacé or tropical fruit salad, and finally a tartlet of monkfish tail. The wine on offer for the main course was a Chateau Arnaud de Jacquemeau (1998) Grand Cru Saint Emilion; with dessert there was Muscat de Beaumes de Venise to complement the passion fruit soufflé, and Smith Woodhouse 1995 LBV Port accompanied the tartlet.
Meanwhile in Damascus, Maher was sunk in despair. By now he had already signed a false confession that said that he had trained at a camp in Afghanistan. He wondered what more he could say. "After the time went by," he remembered,
I got into a very, very desperate situation, where I wanted to be out of that place at any cost, and that's when I realized, to be in that place, the psychological torture in that place is even worse than the beating, the torture. I was ready to accept anything. I was ready to accept a ten-, twenty-year sentence, and say anything, just to get to another place.
The trouble for Maher was that he could not provide what the Syrians wanted most: useful information to pass back to the Americans. So his incarceration continued.
In the underground hell of the Palestine Branch, there were innocents like Maher. There were also those guilty of crimes, those who almost certainly were members of Al Qaeda. There are people who say that under torture some useful intelligence might emerge. After all, the United States would state that the Syrian government had provided information on terrorism that had "saved American lives." So was this torture justified? Was the war on terror too important to lose? And whose side were countries like Syria really on?
It is this dark side of the war on terror, and its uncomfortable truths, that this book explores.
From Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program by Stephen Grey. Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
You may purchase this book at the: Laissez Faire Books' Bookstore