Until tonight, I knew vaguely that the policy of "extraordinary rendition"--sending terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture for interrogation--started under the Clinton administration. But I did not know any of the details.
Tonight I came across this 2001 Wall Street Journal story*, and learned the details:
CIA-Backed Team Used Brutal Means To Break Up Terrorist Cell in Albania
By ANDREW HIGGINS and CHRISTOPHER COOPER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
TIRANA, Albania -- Ahmed Osman Saleh stepped off a minibus here in the Albanian capital in July 1998 and caught what would be his last glimpse of daylight for three days. As he paid the driver, Albanian security agents slipped a white cloth bag over Mr. Saleh's head, bound his limbs with plastic shackles and tossed him into the rear of a hatchback vehicle.
Supervising the operation from a nearby car were agents from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Saleh's Albanian captors sped over rutted roads to an abandoned air base 35 miles north of Tirana. There, recalled an Albanian security agent who participated, guards dumped the bearded self-confessed terrorist on the floor of a windowless bathroom.
After two days of interrogation by CIA agents and sporadic beatings by Albanian guards, Mr. Saleh was put aboard a CIA-chartered plane and flown to Cairo, according to the Albanian agent and a confession Egyptian police elicited from Mr. Saleh in September 1998. "I remained blindfolded until I got off the plane," Mr. Saleh said in the confession, a document written in Arabic longhand that he signed at the bottom.
There were more beatings and torture at the hands of Egyptian authorities. And 18 months after he was grabbed outside the Garden of Games, a Tirana childrens' park, Mr. Saleh was hanged in an Egyptian prison yard.
By the Script
His capture was one of five scripted and overseen by American agents as part of a covert 1998 operation to deport members of the Egyptian Jihad organization to Cairo from the Balkans. At the time, Egyptian Jihad was merging with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. U.S. authorities considered the Tirana cell among the most dangerous terror outfits in Europe. The CIA has refused to acknowledge the 1998 operation. But privately, U.S. officials have described it as one of the most successful counterterrorism
efforts in the annals of the intelligence agency....
About a dozen U.S. agents arrived in Albania to plan the arrests, according to their Albanian counterparts. CIA and SHIK operatives spent three months devising the operation, often meeting in a conference room next to Mr. Klosi's office.
On June 25, 1998, the Egyptian government issued a prearranged arrest warrant for Mr. Attiya, the forger, and demanded his deportation. Most such requests to Western countries had been ignored in the past, said Hisham Saraya, Egypt's attorney general at the time. This one was not.
That day, while driving in his 1986 Audi in Tirana, Mr. Attiya found himself being trailed by an Albanian police car and another vehicle, he later recalled in his confession. He was stopped and arrested. The same day, Albanian security officers raided his home and found more than 50 plates and stamps used to produce fake visas and other bogus documents, according to court records from his 1999 trial.
Several days later, he was taken, handcuffed and blindfolded, to the abandoned air base, north of Tirana. "There, a private plane was waiting for me," he said in his confession. Once in Cairo, he was blindfolded again and driven to Egypt's state security offices on July 2, 1998. "Since then, the interrogations have not stopped," he said.
Mr. Attiya later told his lawyer, Hafez Abu-Saada, that while being questioned, he was subjected to electrical shocks to his genitals, suspended by his limbs, dragged on his face, and made to stand for hours in a cell, with filthy water up to his knees. Mr. Abu-Saada, who represented all five members of the Tirana cell, subsequently recorded their complaints in a published report.
Also deported from Tirana was Mr. Naggar. He was nabbed in July 1998 by SHIK on a road outside of town. He, too, was blindfolded and spirited home on a CIA plane. In complaints in his confession and to his defense lawyer, Mr. Abu-Saada, Mr. Naggar said his Egyptian interrogators regularly applied electrical shocks to his nipples and penis.
Mr. Naggar's brother, Mohamed, said in an interview that he and his relatives also were -- and continue to be -- harassed and tortured by Egyptian police. He said he had suffered broken ribs and fractured cheekbones. "They changed my features," Mohamed Naggar said, touching his face.
About two weeks after Messrs. Attiya and Naggar were deported to Egypt, Albanian security agents took Mr. Tita, the dues-collector, from his Tirana apartment. They covered his head and put him on a plane. "After I was arrested, [Egyptian interrogators] hung me from my wrists and applied electricity to parts of my feet and back," he said in his confession.
As the CIA operation drew to a close, an Arab newspaper in London published a letter on August 5, 1998, signed by the International Islamic Front for Jihad. The letter vowed revenge for the counterterrorism drive in Albania, promising to retaliate against Americans in a "language they will understand."
Two days later, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, killing 224 people. U.S. investigators have attributed the embassy bombings to al Qaeda and now believe the attacks were planned far in advance. At the time, American officials were rattled enough about the possible connection to the
Tirana arrests that they closed the U.S. Embassy there, moving the staff to a more-secure compound across town.
The embassy bombings didn't stop the CIA from going after Mr. Saleh in Tirana. In August, Albanian security agents grabbed him outside the children's park. During two months of detention in Egypt, he was suspended from the ceiling of his cell and given electrical shocks, he told his lawyer, Mr. Abu-Saada. Also rounded up was Essam Abdel-Tawwab, an Egyptian Jihad member who had lived for a time in Tirana before moving to Sofia, Bulgaria. He, too, later told Mr. Abu-Saada he was tortured. Egyptian prosecutors acknowledged in court documents that they observed a "recovered wound" on Mr. Tawwab's body.
Bill Clinton is not President anymore, and I wasn't a huge fan of his when he was. I already knew that part of the groundwork for the "extraordinary rendition" policy was laid during his presidency. I've said a hundred times that this is not and should not be a partisan issue. But apparently I am more naive and more partisan than I'd like to think, because when I read this article I was shocked that this could happen under a Democratic president. I promptly set to work on an internal list of the differences between this case, and Abu Ghraib and Maher Arar's deportation:
--Unlike the Arar case and Abu Ghraib, most of the suspects tortured here were almost certainly terrorists who were actively planning to kill innocent people. The Tirana cell was started by Ayman Al-Zawahiri's younger brother. While coerced confessions are unreliable, there is a lot of corroboration in this case. (Read the full article for details.) The CIA was not rounding up innocent Iraqis or people who'd had lunch with terrorists' brothers' acquaintances one time. They gathered a lot of evidence before they acted.
--This specific operation may not have been approved by anyone on the cabinet level, unlike Arar's deportation. We don't know the details of Clinton administration's policy on "extraordinary renditions", and according to at least one article they actually tried to get Egypt to comply with the torture convention and eventually cut ties to them when they refused. There was nothing like the concerted legal effort to justify torture that we've seen from the Bush administration.
--Most of these men were actual Egyptian citizens, some of whom had actually committed crimes in Egypt. Ahmed Saleh was wanted for a botched assassination attempt of a government minister, and a car bombing (that might be one or two incidents; I can't tell from the article.) Shawki Attiya was wanted on forgery charges, though these may have been drawn up with CIA assistance. I don't have any expertise on this subject, but this seems less flagrantly illegal than deporting a Canadian citizen changing planes in JFK to Syria.
Really, though, what's the use? I prefer torturing the guilty to torturing the innocent, but torture is torture. It was still illegal. It was still wrong. It was still unnecessary.**
*I originally found the article on a legal/news database.That link is to some obscure Albanian message board, the only publicly available source I could find. The order is somewhat garbled, because newspaper sidebars are interspersed with the text, but the text is basically accurate. It's really, really worth reading the whole thing.
**Whether or not we could have broken up this terrorist cell by lawfully charging these men under the Albanian criminal code, I have no idea. It is conceivable that we had to break the law to prevent these men from killing innocent people. It is not conceivable that we had to send them to a prison where they had electric shocks applied to their genitalia.