Rule Change Lets C.I.A. Freely Send Suspects Abroad to Jails
By DOUGLAS JEHL and DAVID JOHNSTON
Published: March 6, 2005
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WASHINGTON, March 5 - The Bush administration's secret program to transfer
suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation has been carried
out by the Central Intelligence Agency under broad authority that has
allowed it to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or the
State or Justice Departments, according to current and former government
The unusually expansive authority for the C.I.A. to operate independently
was provided by the White House under a still-classified directive signed by
President Bush within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, the officials said.
The process, known as rendition, has been central in the government's
efforts to disrupt terrorism, but has been bitterly criticized by human
rights groups on grounds that the practice has violated the Bush
administration's public pledge to provide safeguards against torture.
In providing a detailed description of the program, a senior United States
official said that it had been aimed only at those suspected of knowing
about terrorist operations, and emphasized that the C.I.A. had gone to great
lengths to ensure that they were detained under humane conditions and not
The official would not discuss any legal directive under which the agency
operated, but said that the "C.I.A. has existing authorities to lawfully
conduct these operations."
The official declined to be named but agreed to discuss the program to rebut
the assertions that the United States used the program to secretly send
people to other countries for the purpose of torture. The transfers were
portrayed as an alternative to what American officials have said is the
costly, manpower-intensive process of housing them in the United States or
in American-run facilities in other countries.
In recent weeks, several former detainees have described being subjected to
coercive interrogation techniques and brutal treatment during months spent
in detention under the program in Egypt and other countries. The official
would not discuss specific cases, but did not dispute that there had been
instances in which prisoners were mistreated. The official said none had
The official said the C.I.A.'s inspector general was reviewing the rendition
program as one of at least a half-dozen inquiries within the agency of
possible misconduct involving the detention, interrogation and rendition of
In public, the Bush administration has refused to confirm that the rendition
program exists, saying only in response to questions about it that the
United States did not hand over people to face torture. The official refused
to say how many prisoners had been transferred as part of the program. But
former government officials say that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the C.I.A.
has flown 100 to 150 suspected terrorists from one foreign country to
another, including to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan.
Each of those countries has been identified by the State Department as
habitually using torture in its prisons. But the official said that
guidelines enforced within the C.I.A. require that no transfer take place
before the receiving country provides assurances that the prisoner will be
treated humanely, and that United States personnel are assigned to monitor
"We get assurances, we check on those assurances, and we double-check on
these assurances to make sure that people are being handled properly in
respect to human rights," the official said. The official said that
compliance had been "very high" but added, "Nothing is 100 percent unless
we're sitting there staring at them 24 hours a day."
It has long been known that the C.I.A. has held a small group of
high-ranking leaders of Al Qaeda in secret sites overseas, and that the
United States military continues to detain hundreds of suspected terrorists
at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan. The rendition program was
intended to augment those operations, according to former government
officials, by allowing the United States to gain intelligence from the
interrogations of the prisoners, most of whom were sent to their countries
of birth or citizenship.
Before Sept. 11, the C.I.A. had been authorized by presidential directives
to carry out renditions, but under much more restrictive rules. In most
instances in the past, the transfers of individual prisoners required review
and approval by interagency groups led by the White House, and were usually
authorized to bring prisoners to the United States or to other countries to
face criminal charges.
As part of its broad new latitude, current and former government officials
say, the C.I.A. has been authorized to transfer prisoners to other countries
solely for the purpose of detention and interrogation.
The covert transfers by the C.I.A. have faced sharp criticism, in part
because of the accounts provided by former prisoners who say they were
beaten, shackled, humiliated, subjected to electric shocks, and otherwise
mistreated during their long detention in foreign prisons before being
released without being charged. Those accounts include cases like the
¶Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, who was detained at Kennedy Airport two
weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and transported to Syria, where he said he
was subjected to beatings. A year later he was released without being
charged with any crime.
¶Khaled el-Masri, a Lebanese-born German who was pulled from a bus on the
Serbia-Macedonia border in December 2003 and flown to Afghanistan, where he
said he was beaten and drugged. He was released five months later without
being charged with a crime.
¶Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian who was arrested in Pakistan
several weeks after the 2001 attacks. He was moved to Egypt, Afghanistan and
finally Guantánamo. During his detention, Mr. Habib said he was beaten,
humiliated and subjected to electric shocks. He was released after 40 months
without being charged.
In the most explicit statement of the administration's policies, Alberto R.
Gonzales, then the White House counsel, said in written Congressional
testimony in January that "the policy of the United States is not to
transfer individuals to countries where we believe they likely will be
tortured, whether those individuals are being transferred from inside or
outside the United States." Mr. Gonzales said then that he was "not aware of
anyone in the executive branch authorizing any transfer of a detainee in
violation of that policy."
Administration officials have said that approach is consistent with American
obligations under the Convention Against Torture, the international
agreement that bars signatories from engaging in extreme interrogation
techniques. But in interviews, a half-dozen current and former government
officials said they believed that, in practice, the administration's
approach may have involved turning a blind eye to torture. One former senior
government official who was assured that no one was being mistreated said
that accumulation of abuse accounts was disturbing. "I really wonder what
they were doing, and I am no longer sure what I believe," said the official,
who was briefed periodically about the rendition program.
In Congressional testimony last month, the director of central intelligence,
Porter J. Goss, acknowledged that the United States had only a limited
capacity to enforce promises that detainees would be treated humanely. "We
have a responsibility of trying to ensure that they are properly treated,
and we try and do the best we can to guarantee that," Mr. Goss said of the
prisoners that the United States had transferred to the custody of other
countries. "But of course once they're out of our control, there's only so
much we can do. But we do have an accountability program for those
The practice of transporting a prisoner from one country to another, without
formal extradition proceedings, has been used by the government for years.
George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, has testified
that there were 70 cases before the Sept. 11 attacks, authorized by the
White House. About 20 of those cases involved people brought to the United
States to stand trial under informal arrangements with the country in which
the suspects were captured.
Since Sept. 11, however, it has been used much more widely and has had more
expansive guidelines, because of the broad authorizations that the White
House has granted to the C.I.A. under legal opinions and a series of
amendments to Presidential Decision Directives that remain classified. The
officials said that most of the people subject to rendition were regarded by
counterterrorism experts as less significant than people held under direct
American control, including the estimated three dozen high ranking
operatives of Al Qaeda who are confined at secret sites around the world.
The Pentagon has also transferred some prisoners to foreign custody, handing
over 62 prisoners to Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among other
countries, from the American prison in Guantánamo Bay, in actions that it
has publicly acknowledged. In some of those cases, a senior Defense
Department official said in an interview on Friday, the transfers were for
the purpose of prosecution and trials, but others were intended solely for
the purpose of detention. Those four countries, as well Egypt, Jordan and
Syria, were among those identified in a State Department human rights report
released last week as practicing torture in their prisons.
In an interview, the senior official defended renditions as one among
several important tools in counterterrorism efforts. "The intelligence
obtained by those rendered, detained and interrogated have disrupted
terrorist operations," the official said. "It has saved lives in the United
States and abroad, and it has resulted in the capture of other terrorists."