Ghost Plane

My following book review of Stephen Grey’s Ghost Plane appears in today’s Age newspaper:

If the pain is too much, the CIA can ship you somewhere for treatment

Torture is as American as apple pie. The Bush Administration and CIA may have implemented a worldwide system of “extraordinary renditions” (the removal of prisoners to foreign jails to face physical and mental abuse), but the US government has long engaged in illegal activities beyond the bounds of international law.

When leading conservative American commentators such as Andrew Sullivan express shock at the ways in which torture has become integral to the “war on terror”, one can’t help but wonder what he thought happened before September 11.

Take the case of Dan Mitrione, a CIA man who taught Brazilian police how to administer electric shocks to prisoners in the 1960s. He was just one of many US advisers sent to Latin America during the Cold War to train foreign police agents in the ways of torture, violent interrogation and kidnapping. It was a brutal business that received little mainstream coverage. Today, the CIA is under far greater scrutiny.

Ghost Plane is a welcome addition to our knowledge of America‘s global prison network and exposes the democratic governments that assist in providing air space and diplomatic cover.

The European Parliament recently released a report that accused Britain, Germany, Italy and other EU nations of turning a blind eye to CIA flights that carried so-called terrorists across Europe. The US-led “dirty war” was being waged with complete European complicity.

Stephen Grey paints a startling picture of the conditions under which terror suspects are placed after being abducted by the United States in various world cities. He describes the “Palestine Branch” in downtown Damascus: “As you’re pushed through the door, you will see that, if you are of normal height and width, you can barely fit inside. The cell is three feet wide, six feet long and seven feet high. Welcome to the ‘The Grave’ . . . The Grave received its name because the cells are little larger than coffins.” In late 2002, at least seven prisoners claim to have arrived in this location thanks to “extraordinary rendition”.

One prisoner was Maher Arar, a Canadian wireless technician who was returning home after a family holiday in Tunisia. During a brief stopover in New York, he was detained by immigration officials and suspected of having links to al-Qaeda. He was spirited out of the country by US officials to Syria, in a covert agreement between the two countries. Syria soon realised that he had no terrorist links, but not before he suffered unimaginable torture for nearly a year.

The US has refused to even acknowledge its deliberate policy of sending a suspect to a country it knows practises torture. In late January, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Arar and offered multimillion-dollar compensation. It was a rare moment of decency in a war that is light-years away from the “liberty agenda” espoused by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard.

Grey painstakingly depicts CIA Gulfstream flights through log records and the US-friendly dictatorships that see an unusually high amount of visits. Uzbekistan is a key player.

Former British ambassador to the country Craig Murray became an outspoken critic of the practice. In one cable to then British foreign secretary Jack Straw in 2004, Murray wrote: “We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop.” He rightly explained that “tortured dupes” are notoriously unreliable.

Grey proves beyond doubt that the Abu Ghraib abuses were merely the tip of the iceberg of a co-ordinated and secretive program that stretches across the world. There is now vast evidence to prove that prisoners at US bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba constantly suffer under methods of coercion that would be illegal under US law.

Outsourcing torture to friendly allies is guaranteed to generate repercussions on an unprecedented scale, and Grey’s book is an invaluable tool in revealing the darkest secrets of the world’s only superpower.

Antony Loewenstein is the author of My Israel Question, published by Melbourne University Publishing.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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