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Obama preserves renditions as counter-terrorism tool

The role of the CIA's controversial prisoner-transfer program may expand, intelligence experts say.

February 01, 2009|Greg Miller

In a 2007 speech, https:// www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2007/general-haydens- remarks-at-the-council-on-foreign-relations.html "> www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2007/general-haydens- remarks-at-the-council-on-foreign-relations.html the agency had to make a determination in every case "that it is less, rather than more, likely that the individual will be tortured." He added that the CIA sought "true assurances" and that "we're not looking to shave this 49-51."

Even so, the rendition program became a target of fierce criticism during the Bush administration as a series of cases surfaced.

In one of the most notorious instances, a German citizen named Khaled Masri was arrested in Macedonia in 2003 and whisked away by the CIA to a secret prison in Afghanistan. He was quietly released in Albania five months later after the agency determined it had mistaken Masri for an associate of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Masri later described being abducted by "seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks." He said he was stripped of his clothes, placed in a diaper and blindfolded before being taken aboard a plane in shackles -- an account that matches other descriptions of prisoners captured in the rendition program.

In another prominent case, an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was abducted in Italy in 2003 and secretly flown to an Egyptian jail, where he said he was tortured. The incident became a major source of embarrassment to the CIA when Italian authorities, using cellphone records, identified agency operatives involved in the abduction and sought to prosecute them.

Defenders of the rendition program point out that it has been an effective tool since the early 1990s and was often used to bring terrorism suspects to courts in the United States. Among them was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who was captured in Pakistan and was convicted of helping orchestrate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Because details on the rendition program are classified, the scale of the program has been a subject of wide-ranging speculation.

An exhaustive investigation by the European Union concluded that the CIA had operated more than 1,200 flights in European airspace after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The implication was that most were rendition-related, with some taking suspects to states where they faced torture.

But U.S. intelligence officials contend that the EU report greatly exaggerated the scale of the program and that most of the flights documented by the Europeans involved moving supplies and CIA personnel, not prisoners.

Instead, recent comments by Hayden suggest that the program has been used to move no more than a handful of prisoners in recent years and that the total is in the "midrange two figures" since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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