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Our Man in Damascus: the CIA, Syria and the Rendition of Maher Arar

By all accounts Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and US Secretary of State John Kerry are closing in on a deal that will carve up Syria to suit their own interests (and Israel’s, naturally) and pave the way for the ultimate exit from power of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad,  who has become, justly or unjustly, the media personification of brutality in the Syrian Civil War. It is worth taking note then of a time, not that long ago, when Assad was on more amicable terms with the American regime and opened his dungeons to the CIA for the torture and interrogation of unfortunate people, like Maher Arar, who were mercilessly swept up in the War on Terror. This article is excerpted from my book Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror.

A sleek Gulfstream V jet with the tail number N379P has racked up more international miles than most passenger jets. Since October 2001, this plane has been spotted in some of the world’s most exotic and forbidding airports: Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Karachi, Pakistan, Baku, Azerbaijan, Baghdad, Iraq, and Rabat, Morocco.

It has also frequently landed at Dulles International, outside Washington, DC and enjoys clearance to land at US military air bases in Scotland, Cyprus and Frankfurt, Germany. Observers around the world have noticed men in hoods and chains being taken on and off the jet.

The plane was owned by a company called Bayard Marketing, based in Portland, Oregon. According to FAA records, Bayard’s lone corporate officer was a man called, Leonard T. Bayard. There was no contact information available for Bayard. Indeed, there’s no public record of Bayard at all. No residential address. No telephone numbers. Nothing.

In fact, Bayard Marketing was a dummy corporation and Leonard Bayard is a false identity. They were both created by the CIA to conceal an operation launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001 to kidnap suspected terrorists and transport them to foreign governments where they could be interrogated using methods outlawed in the United States ­ that is, tortured and sometimes killed.

Bayard Marketing was one of five or six different front companies the CIA has used to hide its role in the clandestine “rendition” (the term of art for this process) of suspected terrorists. In this case, the CIA’s desire to keep the program a secret gtpdoesn’t spring from a need to protect it from al-Qaeda or other hostile forces, but from public exposure. The rendition of captives for the purpose of torture violates international and US law.

Unfortunately for the CIA, the jet and its human cargo have been something of an open secret since early 2002, when spotters at international airports began to take note of its regular arrivals and departures, usually at night, from military air bases from Jordan to Indonesia.

A notorious example: On September 26, 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer born in Syria was arrested by US intelligence officials at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York as he was changing planes. Arar and his family were returning home to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. Arar was held in a federal cell for 13 days while he was interrogated about a man US intelligence believed was linked to al-Qaeda. Arar told his captors that he had never met the man in question, although he had worked with his brother on a construction project.

Then one night two plainclothes officers came for Arar, placed a hood over his head, secured his hands with plastic cuffs and shackled his feet in leg irons. He was taken from the federal jail to the airport, where he was placed on the Gulfstream V jet. The plane flew to Washington, DC, then to Portland, Maine. It stopped once in Rome, then landed in Amman, Jordan. During the flight, Arar recalls that he heard the pilots and crew referring to themselves as members of the “Special Removal Unit”.

Arar was held in a cell in Amman for 10 hours. He pleaded with his captors to release him or allow him to talk with a lawyer. They refused. He was placed in a van and driven across the border into Syria, where he was handed over to a secret police unit. He was taken to a dark underground cell and immediately his interrogators began to beat him with battery cables. The beatings went on, day after day.

A year later, Arar was released by the Syrians at the behest of the Canadian government. He was never charged with a crime. His detention, interrogation and torture had been ordered by the CIA. He has received no apology. Arar is one of at least 150 people the CIA has captured and taken to other countries in a covert program known as “extraordinary rendition”.

While Arar ended up in Syria, other detainees have stayed in Jordan, where the CIA runs a “ghost prison” for the detention, interrogation and torture of some of the most senior members of al-Qaeda captured by US forces over the last three years. According to an article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, 11 top al-Qaeda operatives have been sent to the al-Jafr prison in Jordan’s southern desert, where they have been interrogated and tortured. Among those being held in Jordan are Abu Zubaydah, Riduan Isamuddin and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a suspected planner of the 9/11 attacks was captured in Pakistan in March, 2003. Mohammed was taken to a US base in Afghanistan for his initial interrogation and then was sent to the prison in Jordan, where he was subjected to range of tortures, including the infamous “water-boarding” technique, where the victim is bound tightly with ropes to a piece of plywood and then dunked in ice cold water until he nearly drowns.

The water-boarding method was one of several varieties of torture approved by President Bush in an executive order issued in February 2002. Bush’s order, which exempted the CIA from compliance with the rules of the Geneva Conventions, was extended seven months later by an August 2002 memorandum signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee. The Bybee Memo (largely written by his deputy John Yoo) called for the continuation of CIA interrogation methods, including rendition, and blessed as legal methods of physical and psychological coercion that inflicted discomfort “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

The prison in Jordan is only one of 24 secret detention and interrogation centers worldwide operated by the CIA. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “at least half of these operate in total secrecy.”

Originally, the Gulfstream V that flew Arar to Amman was owned by an outfit called Premier Executive Transport Services, Inc, a company based in Deham, Massachusetts. An investigation by the Washington Post’s reporter Dana Priest revealed that the corporate papers filed by Premier Executive included a list of executive officer and board members who, in Priest’s words, “exist only on paper”. The names, Bryan Dyess, Steven Kent, Timothy Sperling and Audrey Tailor, had been issued new Social Security numbers and included only Post Office box numbers for addresses.

The Post Offices are located in Arlington, Virginia, Oakton and Chevy Chase, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Over the past few years, those very same Post Office boxes have been registered to 325 other fictitious names, as well as a company called Executive Support OFC, another CIA front.

The Bush administration didn’t try very hard to keep its torture-by-proxy program a secret. That’s because the administration’s torture lawyers, such as John Yoo, former deputy to Alberto Gonzales and now a law professor at Berkeley, argued that the administration is free to breach international and domestic laws in its pursuit of suspected terrorists. While working for the Bush administration, Yoo drafted a legal memo, which set the framework for the rendition program. He argued that the US was not bound by the Geneva Accords (or US prohibitions on torture) in its pursuit of al-Qaeda members or Taliban soldiers because Afghanistan was “a failed state” and therefore not subject to the protections of the anti-torture laws. The detainees were slotted into a newly created category called “illegal enemy combatants,” a legal rubric which treated them as subhumans lacking all basic human rights.

“Why is it so hard for people to understand that there is a category of behavior not covered by the legal system?” Yoo proclaimed. “Historically, there were people so bad that they were not given protection of the laws. There were no specific provisions for their trial, or imprisonment. If you were an illegal combatant, you didn’t deserve the protection of the laws of war.”

Of course, in the absence of a trial, who is to determine if the people detained as “illegal combatants” are either “illegal” or even “combatants”?

Even more brazenly, Yoo contends that the Bush administration was free to ignore US laws against torture.

“Congress doesn’t have the power to tie the hands of the President in regard to torture as an interrogation technique,” said Yoo. “It’s the core of the Commander-in-Chief function. Congress can’t prevent the president from ordering torture.”

Yoo claims that if Congress had a problem with Bush flouting its laws, the solution is simple: impeachment. He also argued that the US public had its shot at repudiating Bush’s detention and torture program and instead endorsed it. “The issue is dying out,” Yoo told the New Yorker magazine. It “has had its referendum.”

As in so many cases with the Bush administration, it appears that Dick Cheney himself gave the greenlight for the kidnapping and torture scenario. Cheney even dropped a public hint that the Bush administration was going deal savagely with suspected terrorists. During an interview on “Meet the Press,” a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Cheney said that the administration wasn’t going to shackle itself to conventional methods in tracking down suspected terrorists.

“A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful”, Cheney said. “That’s the world these folks operate in. And so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective. We may have to work through, sort of, the dark side.”

Welcome to the dark ages.

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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