Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tip Off: New Book Says Comment By Porter Goss Alerted Journalist To CIA's Controversial Rendition Program

Tip Off
A new book says that a comment by former CIA director Porter Goss alerted a journalist to the agency’s controversial rendition program.

Oct. 12, 2006 - An unsolicited remark from Porter Goss, then chairman House Intelligence Committee, led a British journalist to unravel many of the details of the CIA’s controversial “extraordinary rendition” program, according to a new book. The disclosure of this highly sensitive operation later prompted a major leak investigation that roiled the agency.

The surprising role of Goss, who later became director of the CIA, in setting London-based reporter Stephen Grey on the trail of the rendition program is revealed in “Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program,” to be published this week by St. Martin’s Press.

Grey’s dogged legwork—which started by tracing the tail numbers of mysterious aircraft ultimately linked to the CIA—eventually enabled him to piece together the story of how agency officials were abducting terror suspects and flying them to secret prisons around the world.

Yet, in an ironic twist, Grey reports that his initial tip-off to what the CIA was doing came during a Dec. 14, 2001, interview he had with Florida Congressman Goss on Capitol Hill about the war on terror. At the time, Grey, a veteran reporter who wrote for The Sunday Times of London, asked the House Intelligence Committee chairman about the prospect that Osama bin Laden might be captured and turned over to the U.S. government.

“It’s called a rendition,” Goss replied. “Do you know that?”

“No,” Grey replied, according to a transcript of the interview that Grey made available to NEWSWEEK and portions of which are cited in “Ghost Plane.”

“Well, there is a polite way to take people out of action and bring them to some type of justice,” Goss then says. “It’s generally referred to as a rendition. It's what I would have preferred to do with [former Yugoslavian president Slobodan] Milosevic instead of bombing the hell out of a sovereign nation we're not at war with. It probably would have been smarter to think of a rendition."

Grey writes that it was this offhand comment by Goss that alerted him to the existence of the highly classified CIA program of “snatches and imprisonment that operates outside normal rules.”

“It gave me the germ of the idea,” Grey said in an interview. “This is where I heard about it. He set me on the trail.”

Jennifer Millerwise Dyck, a spokeswoman for Goss, dismissed the idea that Goss had disclosed anything classified or sensitive when he made his remark about rendition to Grey.

“Although that may have been the first time Mr. Grey heard the term, it certainly is not the first time the U.S. government publicly discussed this decades-old tool,” she said in an e-mail response to NEWSWEEK.

“In the ’80’s, [director of Central Intelligence William] Webster discussed rendering terrorists with The Washington Post,” Dyck continued. “During public testimony in 2000, which is easily found on CIA’s public website, Director [George] Tenet openly touted the work done with foreign governments to render terrorists to justice including associates of Usama [sic] Bin Laden. And after 9-11, the U.S. has continued to publicly site [sic] renditions as a critical tool in the War on Terror.”

But the examples that Dyck cited in her response—as well as other public references to renditions prior to Goss’s comments to Grey—involved instances in which the practice was mentioned as a legal tool by which U.S. government agents in the FBI or the CIA apprehended suspects overseas and brought them back to the United States to stand trial in courts of law.

For example, Webster’s November 1989 comments to The Washington Post refer to the Justice Department’s efforts to apprehend suspects in the bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Scotland the previous year and bringing them back to stand trial in the United States. The paper’s report, based on an interview with Webster, reported that the Justice Department had created a new term—“rendition”—to describe the act of capturing and bringing back to the United States a “criminal suspect.”

Similarly, Tenet’s 2000 testimony on the CIA Web site refers to how the CIA, working with foreign governments worldwide, had “helped to render more than two dozen terrorists to justice.”

But as Grey documents in his book, and has been independently confirmed by numerous news organizations, as well as senior Bush administration officials, the CIA’s program after September 11 evolved into something very different and far more controversial. Under the post-9/11 CIA program, known as extraordinary rendition, agency officials have abducted terror suspects who had never been indicted for any crimes and then flown them to either secret agency prisons or to foreign countries such as Egypt or Syria where they have been allegedly interrogated using aggressive techniques that critics charge amounts to torture.

Rand Beers, a former top counterterror official in the Bush White House who later resigned and became a critic of the administration, says Goss, as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, would likely have been briefed about some classified aspects of the emerging extraordinary-rendition program at the time he made his comments to Grey.

To be sure, Goss made no explicit reference to the details of extraordinary rendition in his comments to the British journalist and even the little he did say involved talk about rendering suspects in order to “bring them to some type of justice.” Still, the disclosure that Goss may have played any role at all in the disclosure of the CIA’s secret programs may well be pounced on by critics, given his fierce condemnation of any leaks at all when he was CIA director.

In Senate testimony last February, before he resigned as director, Goss said leaks had caused “severe damage” to the agency’s operations and called for full-fledged grand-jury investigations to find the leakers. "It is my aim, and it is my hope, that we will witness a grand-jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information. I believe the safety of this nation and the people of this country deserves nothing less."

As part of an internal CIA probe into leaks about the CIA’s secret prison program, one senior officer, Mary O. McCarthy, was fired last April after agency officials said she acknowledged “unauthorized contacts with the media and discussion of classified information.” McCarthy’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, later denied she had been the source of the leak and no criminal charges have been filed against her.

Grey estimates in his book that there have been between 100 to 150 CIA renditions under the secret program, some of which have earned global notoriety. Indeed, in Italy prosecutors have filed criminal charges against more than a dozen suspected CIA officers accused of involvement in the rendition of an Islamic militant known as Abu Omar, who was allegedly apprehended off the streets in Milan and flown to Egypt. Prosecutors in Munich are conducting a similar inquiry into the case of Khalid al-Masri, a German citizen who was abducted while on vacation in Macedonia, held and questioned in a secret prison in Afghanistan and later released without explanation. A former German counterterrorism official recently told NEWSWEEK the abduction of al-Masri was a case of “mistaken identity” by the CIA; agency officials thought he was someone else.

Grey played a key role in assisting European governments and many Western journalists to discover the CIA’s role in these and other renditions through his investigative efforts. What Grey did was to take scraps of information about planes linked to the disappearances of Islamic militants around the world and vigorously trace the aircrafts’ origins. Local journalists in Sweden, for example, acquired the tail number of a plane believed to have been involved in the mysterious abduction of an Islamic militant in Stockholm in early December 2001. (Ironically this occurred only a few days after Grey interviewed Goss.)

Using the tail number and public databases—including databases maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration—Grey eventually was able to trace the ownership and licensing of the plane to companies and air-transport operations based at an obscure airport in North Carolina. Later, Grey acquired the numbers of other suspected CIA rendition aircraft, including a Boeing 737 passenger jet. He also managed to acquire unclassified flight-plan records tracking the movements, or at least the intended movements, of the suspected CIA planes around the world. By matching the dates of suspected renditions—or known disappearances—of Islamic militants with the flight plans of CIA planes, Grey not only put together detailed chronologies of how specific renditions apparently took place, but also built up a picture of how the agency moved suspects around the world, where they moved them to and how they apparently used sites in unlikely places—such as Eastern Europe—as part of the secret operation. The Washington Post later built on the raw information assembled by Grey to produce its now famous expose of alleged CIA secret prisons in Eastern Europe, which later triggered a major CIA leak investigation under Goss’s tenure as agency director.