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.”
The bad news is that this makes the wingnut politicians and bloggers who were demanding that the source of the leak be hanged, drawn, and quartered look like fools. The good news is that they’re sure not to notice.
Historical footnote “Rendition” is the term used for any transfer of a criminal suspect from one jurisdiction to another, usually by the process of extradition.
Back in the early ’80s, when I worked on drug policy for the Justice Department, an “irregular rendition” meant putting the snatch on a drug dealer in another country and bringing him to the U.S. for trial, usually with the connivance of host-country enforcement officials. It was “irregular” because it didn’t involve the judicial procedures for a formal extradition, and was used mostly with countries whose laws forbade the extradition of their own citizens for trial abroad. The most famous subject of an “irregular rendition” was Humberto Alvarez Machain, the Mexican doctor implicated in the torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.
Update: A reader points out that I shouldn’t have said that Alvarez was “implicated” without adding that the charges against him were dismissed by the judge on a Rule 29 motion, meaning that even if the jury believed all of the government’s evidence it couldn’t reasonably find him guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The illegality of the process was no barrier to the prosecution of those so rendered; once someone is in U.S. custody, the courts will not turn him loose just because he came into custody irregularly. At the time, I was uncomfortable about what seemed a gross insult to the sovereignty of the countries whose law enforcement agencies we were making party to violations of their laws, but if anyone else at DoJ shared those concerns I never heard of it.
I’m not sure when the term “extraordinary rendition” was invented. I wasn’t aware of any irregular renditions from the U.S., but I don’t know for certain that none were taking place.