If there are two men in the world who know about “extraordinary renditions” then they are Michael Scheuer, the CIA chief who invented the programme, and Craig Murray, the UK ambassador to Uzbekistan who saw first-hand the devastating consequences for British intelligence of using renditions.
In exclusive interviews with the Sunday Herald they blew apart any justification for the rendition system, saying the US government deliberately refused to opt for a legal alternative to renditions which was presented to the President by the CIA and that the programme undermined Western democracy, damaged the prosecution of the war on terror and “contaminated British and US intelligence”.
CIA officer and special adviser to the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden department until November 2004
In 1995, in the wake of the 1993 car-bomb attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, Scheuer was the main CIA officer charged with hunting down Islamic terrorists believed to be posing a threat to the US. He was the “go-to guy” for all things al-Qaeda.
President Clinton’s National Security Council had asked the CIA to break up al-Qaeda around the world and to arrest and imprison key operatives. “The Agency is a tool of the President so of course we said “yes”,” Scheuer explains at his home near the CIA’s HQ in Langley, Virginia. “We asked how we were to do it and where we were to take them, and they said “it’s up to you”.”
The CIA has no prisons and no powers of arrest, so Scheuer was presented with something of a problem. The programme of renditions he developed was very different to the system which now operates.
Today, anyone suspected of links to terrorism can be snatched anywhere in the world, put on a secret CIA jet and taken to a country, such as Egypt, for “out-sourced” torture.
When Scheuer developed his programme he stipulated strictly that only suspects who had been tried in absentia for terrorist offences or had an outstanding arrest warrant were to be targeted. “They had to be part of some legal process,” Scheuer says. “We were focusing on a very narrow segment of al-Qaeda. It was very delicate and complicated.”
The target also had to be perceived as a direct threat to the US by the CIA and the department of justice and the country in which the person was to be seized had to support the action and carry out the arrest. Today there only has to be the suggestion they are involved in terrorism – no convictions or warrants are needed, nor is the permission of another country.
Even more crucially, Scheuer’s rendition programme stated that snatched suspects would be taken to the US as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions. The Clinton administration, however, says Scheuer, forbade this, insisting instead on sending captives to whatever nation had tried them or had an outstanding warrant for them. “To give them PoW status would have given them credibility, in the eyes of the administration, and they didn’t want that,” Scheuer says.
Scheuer was in charge of the snatch operations from 1995, when the first target was seized, until June 1999. In that time, some 50 were captured. Since 9/11 there have been 150 to 200 snatches. “The primary intention was to get the guy off the streets so he couldn’t carry out any more atrocities against US citizens,” he says.
“Our second goal was to seize documents along with the suspect and exploit them for intelligence. Finally, we never expected to get anything from interrogations. Al-Qaeda are trained to fight the jihad from their jail cells , they are masters of counter-interrogation. They’ll give you old information or false information. The CIA never felt it would help to torture these people. ”
Scheuer remains disappointed that his plan to bring suspects back to the US was rejected. “I said we should take them back to America as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, where we could have done so much more with them,” he adds. “Osama bin Laden had declared war on us, so we should have put them in PoW camps and let the Red Cross deal with them.
“If we had brought them to the US, the rendition programme would be being celebrated around the world today. We would have abided by the Geneva Conventions. It would have gone down in CIA lore as a tremendous operation if it was handled in a way commensurate with US law.
“The fact that it isn’t, is down to the policymakers. It’s better to use a system that’s in place – of PoWs and the Geneva Conventions – than invent a new one ad-hoc which people don’t agree with. We shot ourselves in both feet. We did it in such a stupid way.
“Everyone from the President down had the option to make them PoWs, but they were arrogant. We believe al-Qaeda can get legitimacy from what we say and do, so there was a constant fear of giving them legitimacy by calling them PoWs.”
Scheuer accepts that targets were tortured both before and after 9/11. “I have no doubt about it,” he says. “You’d think I’m an ass if I said nobody was tortured. There was more of a willingness in the White House to turn a blind eye to the legal niceties than within the CIA. The Agency always knew it would be left holding the baby for this one.”
But does he care if people suffered? “My priority was to protect Americans. Of course, I would have been much more comfortable if these people had been taken to America. I try to be a good Christian, and I don’t want to see anyone treated badly, but I’m paid to protect Americans, so if the lawyers said it was okay, it was okay. The guys were bad guys .”
British ambassador to Uzbekistan until October 2004
UZBEKISTAN is one of the destinations where “rendered” prisoners end up after being kidnapped by the CIA . Uzbekistan is also somewhere where prisoners are literally boiled alive in cauldrons in the Tashkent torture chambers of the SNB, the Uzbek secret police. Every type of torture the mind can imagine happens in the Central Asian dictatorship.
Craig Murray’s experience is central to understanding the impact that “extraordinary renditions” have on the British intelligence services, the British government and the British people. When a rendered suspect is tortured in Uzbekistan, for example, the SNB forward the confession to the CIA. The CIA then forward the confession to MI6. MI6 pass the information to Cabinet ministers, who use it to make pronouncements about security threats to the UK. The routine is followed no matter in which country the rendered suspect is tortured.
Statements extracted under torture are totally unreliable, sometimes concocted by the interrogators themselves, the victim merely signing them. At other times, Western intelligence services will ask their counterparts in Tashkent or Cairo to question the suspect specifically about people in the UK or the US . Inevitably, the victim admits whatever he is asked to admit. A lie enters the stream of intelligence as the truth.
When asked if this was how people were targeted for arrest in the UK and how claims came to be made about terror plots that never materialised, Murray agreed unequivocally.
“In Uzbekistan, it works like this,” he says. “Person X is tortured and signs a statement saying he’s going to crash planes into buildings, or that he’s linked to Osama bin Laden. He’s also asked if he knows persons X, Y and Z in the UK who are involved in terrorism. He’ll be tortured until he agrees, though he’s never met them.”
The confession is sent to the CIA where, according to Murray, it is “sanitised”. Before sanitisation the report “will have the guy’s name on it, the date of the interrogation, where it took place – and might still be bloodstained.
“The CIA then issues a debriefing document, which does not name the individual. It does not say he was tortured. It only says that it is a detainee debriefing from a friendly overseas security service.
“This will set out the brief facts, such as “we now know person X in London is in Islamic Jihad and plans to blow up Canary Wharf”. This goes to MI6 – the British and Americans share everything – and then it goes to MI6’s customers: the Prime Minister, the defence secretary, the home secretary, the foreign secretary, and other key ministers and officials. I was one of these customers too because I was the ambassador to Tashkent.
“I’d look at these reports and, to be frank, I realised they were bollocks. One talked about terror camps in the hills near Samarkand. I knew the precise location being talked about and it wasn’t true.
“The threats of Islamic extremism in Uzbekistan were exaggerated. I knew the picture on the ground, and claims that there was a large Islamic grouping linked to al-Qaeda were false. The Uzbeks wanted to convince the US they were suffering the same terrorist problem. So if America supported them, they would help in the war on terror.
“What terrifies me is that our government is saying we need to lock up various people on the basis of intelligence that can’t be used in court. But we know the material is dodgy. It is not evidence. It is very important that we realise we are contaminating the pool of intelligence. It leads to false threats, public hysteria and the diversion of resources from real threats.”
As an insider, Murray quickly came to understand that “just because a fact is false doesn’t mean it isn’t useful”. He adds: “Look at the intelligence on WMD. It was false, but it existed on paper and it was still useful for the government in starting a war. In deciding the importance of intelligence it isn’t really important if it is true or not.”
There is no question in Murray’s mind that the British government knew that intelligence reports they were receiving were the results of torture. “I sent telegrams to them saying that torture was going on,” he says. “They know, but they are deliberately blind to it. I warned ministers it was illegal. But the politicians were very keen to just keep going ahead. ”
Even more sinister is the complicity of British intelligence in concocting false confessions . “The MI6 head of station in Uzbekistan would meet his counterpart in the host security service regularly. They would go over who was in detention and what questions could be put to them. They were seeking the false information they wanted,” he says.
“We are eroding intelligence and democracy. In Uzbekistan, thousands of people are tortured every year. If we collude in it, is it any wonder Muslims hate us?”
Copyright Sunday Herald Ltd