The Origins of the Rendition Program: Does the CIA Have the Right to Break Any Law?

Michael Scheuer left the CIA in November 2005 after 22 years of service. Between 1995 and 1999 he was responsible for a unit in charge of tracking down Osama bin Laden. Since 2000 he had been one of the principal anti-terrorism agents within the CIA. While he was still in service, he already wrote an essay criticizing the American anti-terrorism politics (“Imperial Hubris“). Within the CIA, Michael Scheuer is considered as being a detractor. He lives in Virginia with his family.This interview was conducted by the German newspaper Die Zeit.

Die Zeit: You have participated within the CIA in developing a system called « renditions » in the course of which presumed terrorists were abducted to foreign countries and handed over to third countries. Would you say that from the point of view of the CIA these “extraordinary renditions” were a successful undertaking?

Michael Scheuer: Absolutely. For ten years it had been the most successful anti-terrorism program in the USA.

Die Zeit: Why?

Michael Scheuer: Because its aims were clearly defined. First of all, we wanted to identify and put behind bars members and contact persons of the terrorist group Al-Qaida, particularly those having participated in an attack against the USA or an allied state or those who might be planning such an attack. The second goal was the confiscation of documents and electronic devices. The media affirms that we have arrested and abducted persons on the basis of presumptions in order to interrogate them. But this is not true.

Die Zeit: You thus did not wish to interrogate them?

Michael Scheuer: If we had the occasion to do so it was like the cherry on the cake. Basically, we only wished to arrest the person and confiscate his or her documents.

Die Zeit: Why?

Michael Scheuer: Our experience is that aggressive questioning bordering on torture does not achieve results. Persons interrogated in this way tell the agent anything he wishes to hear. Either they lie or they give us precise but obsolete information.

Die Zeit: Who invented the “extraordinary renditions” system?

Michael Scheuer: President Clinton, his security counsellor Sandy Berger and his terrorism counsellor Richard Clarke instructed the CIA in autumn 1995 to destroy Al-Qaida. We asked the president what we should do with the arrested persons? Clinton replied that this was our problem. The CIA indicated that they are not jailors. It was then suggested we find any solution whatsoever to this problem. And this is what we did, we established a procedure and I myself was part of this working group. We concentrated on those members of Al-Qaida who were wanted by the police in their respective countries of origin or those who had already been convicted during their absence.

Die Zeit: How did you take the decision as to who should be arrested?

Michael Scheuer: We had to present quite a lot of accusatory material to a group of lawyers.

Die Zeit: Lawyers? Within the secret services?

Michael Scheuer: Yes, there are lawyers everywhere, within the CIA, the Ministry of Justice, the National Security Councill. We have established a list of targets under their surveillance. We then had to find the person and this in a country ready to cooperate with us. Additionally, the person’s country of origin had to be willing to take the person back. It is a very complicated procedure aimed at a very restricted target group.

Die Zeit: Why would countries wish to cooperate with you on their own territory? They could have done all the work themselves?

Michael Scheuer: They thought that only the USA was under threat. And that they would only become the target of terrorist attacks once they start arresting suspects. If we had not started the process, nobody would have done it.

Die Zeit: Your partner countries thus wanted to pass on the work to the CIA?

Michael Scheuer: Yes, but they did not want the persons to remain on their territory. The CIA did not arrest or imprison anybody themselves.

Die Zeit: I beg your pardon?

Michael Scheuer: The local police or the local secret services took care of that. We always stayed in the background. The American government is full of cowards. They do not permit the CIA to work independently.

Die Zeit: Did the interrogations take place in the target country?

Michael Scheuer: We always submitted our questions in writing.

Die Zeit: The CIA never really took part in the interrogations?

Michael Scheuer: I have never heard of anything like that. The lawyers enjoined us from doing so.

Die Zeit: Did you not have doubts concerning the use of torture in these countries?

Michael Scheuer: No, my job was to protect American citizens by arresting members of Al-Qaida. The executive power of our government has to decide whether it considers this hypocritical or not. 90% of this operation was successful and only 10% could be considered as disastrous.

Die Zeit: Which part was the disaster?

Michael Scheuer: The fact that everything was made public. From now on the Europeans will diminish their assistance because they fear reading about it in the Washington Post. And then there is this troublemaker in the Senate, Senator John McCain, who virtually confessed, wrongly of course, that the CIA uses torture. And that is how the program will be destroyed.

Die Zeit: Why did you transfer the persons to their countries of origin instead of transferring them to the USA? Could you not have imprisoned them there much more safely?

Michael Scheuer: The crimes they had committed were always acts of violence. We did not have the slightest doubts that those people would be released by their countries. And president Clinton did not want them to be transferred to the USA.

Die Zeit: Why not?

Michael Scheuer: Our leaders did not wish us to treat them like prisoners of war but rather like common criminals. Additionally, they feared that they would never be able to assemble sufficient proof in order to defend the case before our law courts.

Die Zeit: Is it that difficult?

Michael Scheuer: In order to obtain a judgement against someone in the USA, an American law officer has to read him the Miranda rights when arresting him. This is impossible to do in a foreign country. Secondly, the investigators have to confirm the authenticity of the documents to the court. Should nobody be able to do so, the court automatically presumes that the documents have been tampered with. Thus it is almost impossible to obtain a judgement.

Die Zeit: How can it be possible not to dispose of enough forensic proof but nevertheless be convinced enough to arrest someone in a foreign country? Does the operation not automatically become illegal and illegitimate?

Michael Scheuer: No, since arrest warrants against most of these persons had already been issued in their countries of origin. Even though we do not appreciate the Egyptian or Jordanian system of justice, it nevertheless remains a system of justice. We simply assist in transferring these persons to their countries of origin in order for them to be tried for crimes committed abroad.

Die Zeit: The CIA considered itself as a planetary police?

Michael Scheuer: No, we are an American government agency aiming to protect American citizens. We would have preferred to transfer these persons to the USA as prisoners of war. As a matter of fact, Osama bin Laden declared war against us twice, once in 1996, then in 1998. But President Clinton did not want that. And neither does President Bush. They both thought that this would somehow legitimate Al-Qaida members if we treated them like prisoners of war. But that is not true. Bin Laden and his agents are heroes in the Islamic world. Nothing we do could legitimate them more than they already are. Furthermore, it is easier to let the Jordanians or the Egyptians do the dirty work.

Die Zeit: Human rights were not that important then for the Clinton government?

Michael Scheuer: The CIA has asked this question. It is a fact that in Cairo people are not treated the same as they are in Milwaukee. The Clinton government asked us: Do you think the prisoners are treated there according to the stipulations of the applicable local jurisdiction? And we replied: Yes we are convinced about that.

Die Zeit: The Clinton government did not show much interest in the way things were run on the spot either?

Michael Scheuer: Exactly. The members in charge of the CIA have been convinced from the beginning that in the end we will be considered as being the guilty ones. And you can ascertain it yourself: Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger or Richard Clarke have not yet commented on this.

Die Zeit: Which laws have been broken?

Michael Scheuer: I really don,t know. No American law, that,s for sure. The CIA may break any law except for American law just as any secret service. And abroad we have always acted upon approval of the local authorities.

Die Zeit: The head of the anti-terrorism section of the CIA, Cofer Black, said after the attacks of September 11 that they would stop playing “Mr. Nice Guy”. What effects did this have on internal CIA procedures?

Michael Scheuer: There was much more pressure to succeed. And we started to place people in specialized institutions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. The Bush government wanted to arrest the people itself but it made the same mistake as the Clinton government by not treating them as prisoners of war.

Die Zeit: How many people have you arrested?

Michael Scheuer: I couldn’t say exactly. Right after the 2001 attacks, the director of the CIA George Tenet told Congress that until then it were approximately 100 persons. The operations that I was in charge of concerned approximately 40 people at that time. The number 100 seems much too high to me.

Die Zeit: And since then?

Michael Scheuer: Most countries do not wish to take back this kind of person. That is the reason why most of them are in the hands of the Americans. Therefore, the number of arrested people is higher, a few hundred maybe, but certainly not thousands.

Die Zeit: One of your former colleagues has designated these “extraordinary renditions” as “atrocities”.

Michael Scheuer: If defending the USA is an atrocity, this critic would feel quite at home within the left wing of the Democratic Party. I believe that this shows only a lack of courage to do the dirty work oneself.

Die Zeit: Critics within the agency affirm that the program got out of control after 2001.

Michael Scheuer: Until today it remains very difficult to obtain the lawyers’ consent for an operation. The Europeans should not underestimate the paralysing nature of the American administrative system.

Die Zeit: Which legal changes have taken place since 2001?

Michael Scheuer: We have stopped being such Pharisees as we now imprison the persons ourselves. At least one can say in favour of the Bush government that it behaves more manly and that it takes care of the dirty work itself. And in the media I read that they now apply “improved interrogation techniques”, probably meaning that a little bit more force can be used now than before.

Die Zeit: How do you explain people dying during their detention period by the CIA?

Michael Scheuer: I do not know anything about that. I have only read about that in the papers.

Die Zeit: There are reports of persons being seriously abused and there are even pictures to prove that.

Michael Scheuer: My understanding of the new interrogation methods is that none of them should be fatal. If deaths really occurred, then I presume there must have been excesses. And this, of course, is not acceptable.

Die Zeit: Apparently, hundreds of CIA flights have been crossing Europe, what for?

Michael Scheuer: (laughs) It’s just that all that is a bit surreal, that’s all. The CIA acts everywhere in the world. We transport persons, equipment and funds all over the world. If we wish to supply provisions to the CIA in Iraq, we have to cross Europe on our way and stock up our plane with kerosene. This does not mean, however, that each of these planes has a “bad guy” on board.

Die Zeit: Do you find the excitement in Europe amusing?

Michael Scheuer: Yes, quite amusing indeed.

Die Zeit: Why do you need prisons in Eastern Europe?

Michael Scheuer: I am not sure that there really are prisons over there. I would be surprised if there were.

Die Zeit: I hoped that you would tell me where they are.

Michael Scheuer: (laughs) I will reply by citing Franklin D. Roosevelt: I think they are in Shangri-la. No really, I do not know why we should need such prisons. We have enough capacities elsewhere, particularly in Iraq and Cuba. I did not know anything about prisons in Eastern Europe while I was still working. This, however, does not mean anything. Maybe I did not need to know. And if they existed, I suppose our European allies were convinced that the operation would protect them as much as it protected us.

Die Zeit: How did the cooperation with the European allies work, especially with Germany?

Michael Scheuer: In the best of cases one could say that the efficiency of the cooperation was very unsteady before 2001. I do not think Germany is among our best allies. The Italians have always been good allies and the Brits do their best. The principal problem in Europe is more essential: The immigration legislation and asylum rights have helped to establish a hard-core of terrorists, convicted elsewhere, and who have now become European citizens. Additionally, nobody can be deported to a country applying the death penalty.

Die Zeit: The position concerning the death penalty hampers the cooperation?

Michael Scheuer: It’s much more than that. It is like a roadblock. In principle, we have not been working in Europe. Agreements have been made during the Cold War according to which we do not undertake operations ourselves in Europe and the CIA still has to observe the stipulations of these agreements. Thus, we worked in places where the system would allow it. It would be insane to bash one’s head against a wall.

Die Zeit: Why else was the cooperation unsteady besides the death penalty problem?

Michael Scheuer: Churchill once said at the end of the thirties: The Europeans always hope that the alligator will eat them last. As long as the USA were the terrorists, target many Europeans wondered why they should expose themselves to danger and get involved alongside the Americans.
Die Zeit: How did you try to obtain the information you needed from your German colleagues for example?

Michael Scheuer: Sometimes we simply did not receive a reply; on other occasions we only received a partial reply. Sometimes we were told: we do not have much information but here is what we,ve got. Everything went very slowly.

Die Zeit: Has this changed since the 2001 attacks?

Michael Scheuer: Oh yes, indeed. But in Europe they still believe that even after the attacks on New York, Madrid and London that one should not get too involved. They believe that they are only in danger if they support the Americans.

Die Zeit: The number of partisans of this thesis has increased after the Iraq invasion.

Michael Scheuer: The Iraq invasion has without a doubt broken our spine and also discredited our anti-terrorism operation. In the long run this war will certainly cause the return to Europe of a second generation of well-trained European Muslim and convert fighters. The first generation arrived in the 90’s from the Balkans and Chechnya.

Die Zeit: I’ll cite the case of the German/Syrian Mohammed Haydar Zammer who had a connection with the so-called Hamburg cell having prepared the attacks on the World Trade Center. German justice could not prove anything against him. The CIA arrested the man in Morocco and transferred him to Syria. How should I imagine the cooperation with the Germans in this specific case?

Michael Scheuer: I would be surprised if nobody within the German secret services had been updated on this operation, even if it may have been done retroactively. Critics from Europe are very much feared in Washington. This may come as a surprise, especially in view of our current president, but that remains nevertheless true.

Die Zeit: Could the contrary not be the case? Notably that the German secret services have informed you beforehand of the man’s destination as he left Germany?

Michael Scheuer: Nothing is impossible, but I have no reason to presume something like this.

Die Zeit: The new German Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble has informed us that the interrogations of Zammar in Syria have been satisfactory. Is this true?

Michael Scheuer: That is true with regards to the “extraordinary renditions” program. I believe it to be dishonest on the part of the Europeans to criticize this operation that intensely because we have transmitted all information obtained concerning them during the interrogations to the Spanish, Italian, German, French and English services. And if you asked these services, they would reply: The information obtained thanks to the “extraordinary renditions” program of the CIA has been very useful.

Die Zeit: The Germans thus have profited from your methods?

Michael Scheuer: Of course.

Die Zeit: The German Minister of the Interior has told the Parliament of three cases where German agents have attended interrogations of German citizens in prisons abroad. Would it be exaggerated to say that the CIA did the dirty work for us Germans?

Michael Scheuer: As I already said, sometimes the criticism borders on hypocrisy in my view.

Die Zeit: Can you be sure that there have been no errors and that no one was falsely transferred?

Michael Scheuer: I am sure that errors have been committed. Clausewitz has spoken of the fogs of war and we are right in the middle of that fog. If errors have been committed, the concerned persons have to be indemnified.

Die Zeit: One of these cases seems to be the one concerning the German citizen Khaled El-Masri who was arrested in the Balkans, then transferred to Afghanistan and released several months later in the Balkans.

Michael Scheuer: This is one of the symbols for the confusion in times of war. He surely would not have been arrested, had there not existed alarming information against him.

Die Zeit: This case seems more likely to be a symbol showing that we should rather entrust such cases to public prosecution, to law courts and to the police instead of to the CIA.

Michael Scheuer: If you prefer Al-Qaida being subject to prosecution and wait until we have lost the case, then you are surely right. We are, however, at war and the quicker we succeed in treating this kind of thing outside the framework of the prosecution and in treating them according to the rules of the Geneva Convention, the better it will be for the USA, Europe and also for Germany. If these people are considered as prisoners of war, there is no legal means to be used against them.

Die Zeit: Mr. El-Masri indicates that he was tortured. He was detained in a CIA prison in Afghanistan.

Michael Scheuer: If he was detained in a CIA prison, he was not tortured. Full stop.

Die Zeit: But this is what he says.

Michael Scheuer: That does not surprise me. Maybe he wants to obtain money. That,s what they all want.

Die Zeit: He also says that he was interrogated in Afghanistan by a German. How can that be possible?

Michael Scheuer: I don’t know if this is true but it is possible. Our government and our secret services try to help NATO’s allies. If German agents have indeed interrogated him, this means that they too hoped to obtain information from him.

Die Zeit: How many of such cases involving European Muslims are there?

Michael Scheuer: Not many, because in most cases the Europeans do not cooperate. Thus, we try to get hold of these people as soon as they leave European territory.

Die Zeit: El-Masri wondered why the American agents who interrogated him knew details of his daily life. They could only have obtained these details from the German secret services, unless of course the CIA spies in Germany itself?

Michael Scheuer: I am sure that this information did not come from our services. If we disposed of information about El-Masri’s activities in Germany, these were provided by one of the German services. And this also suggests that he was arrested based not on a simple rumor or on a supposition.

Die Zeit: What will become of the “extraordinary renditions”?

Michael Scheuer: The program is probably dead because of the leaks, the publications and the criticisms. The result is disillusioning for those in charge within the secret services: Not one of those who had given us the orders to act as we did admits today to have done so.

Translated from German into English by Eva, a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity (