Journalism in the Public Interest

The ‘Italian Job’ and Other Highlights From U.S.’s Rendition Program With Egypt


Abu Zaabal prison, 25 kms north of Cairo, after a mass breakout during the nationwide protest. (AFP/Getty Images file photo)

Among the many aspects of the U.S.-Egypt relationship, few have been as controversial as the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, where the agency frequently handed over suspected terrorists to foreign governments with histories of torture and illegal detention.

According to Human Rights Watch, Egypt welcomed more CIA detainees than any other country from the 1990s through 2005. And while renditions happen only with the assurance that a foreign partner will not torture the prisoner, as one CIA officer once told Congress, the assurances “weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” (Want to know more about rendition? Here’s a good backgrounder.)

In the case of Egypt, the assurances were given by Omar Suleiman, former head of the country’s intelligence service, and the man President Hosni Mubarak picked as his vice president a few days ago.

Perhaps the most notorious case is that of Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi, a Libyan national captured by Pakistani authorities in the months after the September 11, 2001 attacks. According to a 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee report, [PDF] al-Libi was turned over to American authorities and eventually sent to Egypt, where his fabricated testimony, given under torture, became a key piece of “evidence” falsely linking al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

According to the Senate report, al-Libi said he began to feed his captors false intelligence once American interrogators threatened to send him to a foreign government. He started talking, he said, but was sent to Egypt anyway. He later told the CIA that his Egyptian captors placed him in a box less than 2 feet square for 17 hours.

Then, “when he was let out of the box, al-Libi claims that he was given a last opportunity to ‘tell the truth.’ ” He was struck down, he said, and finally “was punched for 15 minutes.” In another episode, he says he was beaten in a way that wouldn’t leave any marks.

As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and others have detailed, the “intelligence” he provided made its way into the 2003 speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Nations, laying out the evidence to justify war with Iraq. Years later, after no weapons of mass destruction were found, al-Libi recanted.

“When the F.B.I. later asked him why he had lied, he blamed the brutality of the Egyptian intelligence service,” Mayer writes. “Libi explained, ‘They were killing me,’ and that, ‘I had to tell them something.’ ”

Another famous case is that of Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian cleric who disappeared for a year after he was snatched off the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to Egypt. Known in the agency as “The Italian Job,” the operation was exposed when Italian prosecutors were able to reconstruct the kidnapping after Nasr was released. In 2009, an Italian court convicted 23 Americans in absentia for the kidnapping.

A 2005 report from Human Rights Watch documented 63 cases of people being rendered to and from Egypt, though the report also estimated that the total number of cases was much higher, with as many as 200 people sent away since 2001. The United States was involved in most but not all of those cases, according to the report.

Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of high-ranking al-Qaeda member Ayman, was reportedly kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates in 1999. He was presumed dead for years until the Arab press picked up on his detention.

“For more than five years, the Egyptian government refused to answer a single question about al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts, and allowed his family to believe that he had died rather than disclose his continued incarceration,” the HRW report said. His brother Hussain was also abducted in 1999, reportedly with help of the CIA in Malaysia, according to the report.

Days after taking office, President Obama signed an executive order restricting renditions but also keeping them as an option. "Obviously you need to preserve some tools – you still have to go after the bad guys," an administration official told the Los Angeles Times.

In September, a federal appeals court ruled that detainees cannot sue the CIA over allegations of torture at the hands of foreign governments.

I am a US citizen, a veteran and a retired judge. I have worked in Cambodia and in Iraq.  I directed the ill-fated US Embassy Office of Accountability and Transparency in Iraq during the summer of 2007.  I have personally witnessed the deceit, corruption and negligence of the US State Department and the so-called Department of Justice. The US government is routinely violating fundamental human rights wherever it determines it has an “interest” and an “interest” means the objectives of the transnational corporations (super citizens) and the military industrial complex. Obama should be ashamed of his “moving forward” remarks concerning the torture and murder carried out under the Bush Administration and Obama should be ashamed of his own continuing policies of war, death and destruction.

Clayton Hallmark

Feb. 1, 2011, 9:46 a.m.

Robert (Bob) Lady, the ringleader (CIA station chief in Milan) of the “Italian Job,” who was in Cairo when Suleiman’s forces tortured Abu Omar, is now running a private spy operation out of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale called “RL Lady International.”

The dog returns to his vomit.

I have to admit this is a sad world to live in. We need to stand up and fight for what is right. Not just in Egypt but in the United States.

Given all the bad guys in the USA,who exactly are they protecting here?

Janet Albrechtsen

Feb. 2, 2011, 3:41 a.m.

We in Australia have also had these sort of allegations. However, as you will note from my blogs on the Un-australian! Yes, owned by The Man Who Thinks He Is Greater Than GOD, rupert murduck. These are myths perpertrated by do gooders, lefties, NGO’s and other antisocial misfits.
Fact of the matter is, if you are caught, you must be guilty, therefore you must reap the rewards.

James B Storer

March 6, 2011, 1:45 p.m.

At about age seven I disavowed allegiance to the Republican Party, to the consternation of my parents.  Other than that necessary philosophical move, I really spent my early years without much interest or activity in discerning the inner workings of government.  I figured we are, as a nation, more good than bad, and always stood up for the government against citizens who would criticize our nation.  This attitude changed, but not by much, with the entrance of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Today I feel ample reason for regretting my former apathy.  Exactly what is this RENDITION program, anyway?
  I read the subject report and several of the links it includes, and came out with an initial conclusion.  I believe the terms ‘rendition’ and ‘extraordinary rendition’ are better and more accurately defined by the term ‘torture by proxy’ (I forget who first coined this).  I have reasons for this conclusion, though my reasons may be born of ignorance since all that I read excludes the vast official defining verbiage that is under the “secret” rug.
  Why, may I ask, is ‘rendition’ even a logical consideration, if we do not impose rendition to a country that does not practice torture?  Rendition is for the sole purpose of inducing the fear of torture in the prisoner.  This is total nonsense if the proposed host nation does not and the world knows it does not employ torture.  Further, information gleaned there from is probably inaccurate most of the time, and generally unreliable.  If we already have absolute proof of offenses, rendition is folly in the first place, and if we do not; well, then, rendition without indictable cause seems to me to be patently illegal in our Constitution and justice system.  (Do not rebut me with ‘rules of war’ nonsense)
  My final and most important objection to this sordid matter is the placing of it under permanent secrecy clamps.  This single aspect probably inspires the bulk of our clamor and objection.  Secrecy in this rendition matter also is a major factor in keeping secret files secret in perpetuity, as many public figures will suffer embarrassment by lifting the veil.  We are supposedly a nation of open courts, trial by jury, and habeas corpus.  Those of you who are so damned fond of Bush’s rendition program might need to imagine yourself in the shoes of one of the persons who endured (or endured not) as a victim of this cruel, inhuman “torture by proxy’ program.  —-Skartishu, Granby MO

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