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(DV) Rajiva: What Did the European Agencies Know About the Torture Flights?







Flying the Friendly Skies
What Did European Agencies Know About the Torture Flights?
by Lila Rajiva
December 7, 2005

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New revelations surfaced Monday night that the CIA directed one of its “black ops” not against terrorists but against an ally, Italy. They only add to the outrage in Europe over illegal rendition flights and the mounting evidence that in its “Global War on Terror” the Bush administration is trampling all international legal and ethical norms.

But they also raise a disturbing question. How could the CIA have operated with such flagrant illegality in foreign countries without the help of local agencies and operatives? 

First, the new evidence. In a report filed late Monday night, the Washington Post added details about the CIA’s controversial rendition in 2003 of radical Islamic cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a.k.a. Abu Omar, an Egyptian refugee and terror suspect. (1) 

It now seems that in March that year, the CIA deliberately misled Italian counter-terrorism police into believing that Omar, the target of an Italian criminal investigation, was in the Balkans when in fact he had been kidnapped on the streets in Milan by agency operatives. The deception is said to have held up the Italians for a year and damaged a major investigation likely to have identified Omar’s accomplices.  

Earlier this year, Italian authorities issued arrest warrants for the 22 suspected CIA operatives, including the head of the Milan substation, on charges of kidnapping and related crimes. The lead prosecutor now accuses the agency of a “serious crime” against Italian sovereignty and human rights and of “seriously damaging” Italian counter-terrorism efforts. The case is the first time that a foreign government has filed criminal charges against U.S. operatives for their role in a counter-terrorism mission.  

And it looks like it won’t be the last either. In another scoop, the online edition of the German paper, Der Spiegel, said over the weekend, that based on a list provided by air traffic controllers, there were at least 437 rendition flights through Germany, more than four times earlier estimates. Two privately-registered companies linked to the CIA either passed through German air space or landed on German territory 137 times in 2002 and 146 times in 2003 stopping over at US airbases in Germany, notably, Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt and the Ramstein Air Force Base in southwestern Germany. (2)  

The list of countries busy investigating the spy flights has now mushroomed to include Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Malta, Cyprus, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Denmark and Switzerland. In short, all of Europe. And all over Europe, officials are protesting their shock, their outrage, their fervent desire to get to the bottom of the business. 

Should we hold our breath? It’s already apparent from accounts that intelligence agencies in at least some of these countries are implicated in what happened. A few days ago, German public television ARD stated that at least one German security agency knew about the CIA detainee transports. (3) 

That seems true also of the notorious and important case of two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who were arrested by Swedish security police and rendered at Sweden’s Bromma airport on the night of December 18, 2001. In the presence of Swedish police inspector, Paul Forell, two Americans in business suits from the U.S. Embassy in Sweden watched as eight other Americans in hoods, who appeared to be specially trained, handcuffed and cut off the detainees’ clothes, inserted suppositories into their anuses and diapered, blinded, and hooded them. They were bundled onto an unmarked Gulfstream Jet with tail number N379P and taken to Egypt’s Masra Tora prison in Cairo. According to Swedish government documents revealed by Sweden’s Channel 4 (Kalla Fakta) television, when the two men were visited by the Swedish ambassador five weeks later they stated that they had been tortured.  

Swedish authorities claim that sending them to Egypt was legal because Sweden had been given a diplomatic guarantee by Egypt that torture would not be employed. But experts argue that such a guarantee is only meaningful when given by countries with strong human right records under specific conditions. The location of the prisoner must be disclosed, a medical examination made, the interrogation itself recorded, and a lawyer provided. In fact, Columbia University’s Peter Rosenblum, a professor of human rights, compares the Swedish-Egyptian guarantee to “sending a child back to the child molester, and just getting an agreement from the child molester, that he won’t molest this child.”

What is equally disturbing and raises questions about the nature and extent of the complicity of foreign agencies/officials in the CIA’s crimes is that according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ chief legal counsel, Sweden appears willing to settle for an investigation led by the Egyptian authorities as long as it has some input. In this case, that input appears to be only the contribution of a retired Swedish police officer or prosecutor. (4) 

Sweden is not alone. The Danes too have blurred responsibility. In June this past year, officials stated that Denmark would not prohibit CIA airplanes entering Danish air space under the status of civil planes as that would violate international law. Denmark, they said would not be held responsible for the consequences of such flights. (5) 

In Ireland, peace activists are indignant that their government’s seems willing to look the other way. Ireland’s Shannon airport, a frequent re-fueling stop for the CIA jets, has seen a doubling in troops carrying flights in the last year (even while the Pentagon refuses to pay air traffic control fees now totaling nearly Eur $5 million). But despite repeated petitions and complaints about the CIA’s renditions, Irish security police have done nothing to check the suspected planes. Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern apparently manufactured a non-existent Human Rights Watch statement to the effect that it was “highly unlikely” that such renditions would take place from a major civilian airport even though major media all over the world has repeatedly documented renditions at other major civilian airports, like Dulles (DC), Bromma (Stockholm), Kastrup (Copenhagen), Queen Alia (Amman), and Prestwyk (Glasgow). (6)  

And back to the Milan kidnapping. Here too, while Italian intelligence denies knowledge of the CIA operation, U.S. intelligence officials, speaking anonymously since they are not authorized to discuss the case, have said that the CIA in fact informed its counterparts at the Italian military intelligence agency beforehand and that CIA officers informed their superiors that the Italian agency had vetted the information with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. (7) Of course, there would be no documentation to support such claims. That would be in the nature of a covert operation. 

It is impossible at this stage to know to what extent European agencies have been involved in what happened. But it is clear that there was involvement. If European governments do not immediately and unequivocally demand a full accounting of the CIA’s blatantly illegal and dangerous activities in their countries, they too will have to accept responsibility for aiding and abetting torture. 

Postscript (December 29)

In a letter to me, Coilín ÓhAiseadha (, the author of the Indymedia article I cite (Note 4), made the following corrections (in excerpt):

1. Mr. Bertie Ahern, who is my Taoiseach, the Irish equivalent to a prime minister, is the one who came out with the misinterpretation of a statement from Human Rights Watch.... I have now found the relevant statement from HRW, misinterpreted by the Taoiseach. It seems that the statement was not invented, but gravely misinterpreted.

2. I stand by my assertion that the CIA has used all the airports I mention for clandestine activities related to the abduction of terrorist suspects, but, although it is a good bet that they did have prisoners on board at some of them, e.g. particularly Queen Alia Airport in Jordan, I cannot yet document this.

Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer in Baltimore and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva


* Lila Rajiva will discuss The Language of Empire in Seattle, Portland, Oakland and Sacramento next week (December 14-17). Click here for more details.


1) Craig Whitlock with the help of Dana Priest and William Magnuson,“CIA ruse on missing cleric misled Italians,” Washington Post, December 5, 2005.

2) “CIA flights 'landed in Germany,'” BBC, December 3, 2005.

3) “Ireland to pursue US over alleged CIA prisoner flights,” AFP, November 28, 2005.

4) “More on the US 'Secret Commando Unit' that has in past repeatedly transited thru Shannon Airport,” Indymedia Ireland, English Translation of Transcript of Kalla Fakta (Sweden TV4) Program Broadcast, Nov. 22, 2005.

5) “Denmark not to ban US flights of terror suspects across its sky: FM,” People’s Daily Online, June 9, 2005.

6) “Extraordinary renditions -- extraordinary ignorance,” Dr. Coilín Oscar, ÓhAiseadha, Nov 12 2005, Independent Media Center.

7) Whitlock, Washington Post, December 5. Also, Stephen Grey and Andrew Buncombe, “Britain Accused Over CIA's Secret Torture Flights,” The Independent (UK), February 10, 2005;  John Crewdson and Tom Hundley, “Jet's Travels Cloaked in Mystery,” Knight-Ridder, March 20, 2005.

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* The Torture-Go-Round: The CIA’s Illegal Rendition Flights
* The Gratitude of Turkeys
* Rodent Trials Show Biotech is Squeaky Unclean
* Willie Pete and the Theo-logicians of Empire
* Dover Bitch
* Economics Trumps Law in the Neoliberal Gulag
* Coming Out On Hallowe'en
* How to Recognize a Liberal Feminist
* License to Bill: In India, Bill Gates Does Well by Doing Good
* The Burgh, Downsizing
* Preview of Abu Ghraib in New Orleans
* Leviathan in the Flood: Katrina and the Fishy Logic of the State
* The NPT is Dead.... And It's a Good Thing Too
* An 800-Pound Gorilla Goes to the UN
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* Vision Mumbai Submerged: Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink
* America's Downing Syndrome, or Why the Not-So-Secret Air War Stayed “Secret”
* Turkey Supreme
* Witches and Bastards: An Imperial Wizard and a Prescription for Anti-Imperialism
* Playing Monopoly in Charm City
* The Pharisee’s Fire Sermon
* The Ideology of American Empire
* Tsunami Cover Up? NOAA and the Flood
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part IV: Gendered Propaganda, the Propaganda of Gender
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part III: Violence and Virtual Violence
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part II: Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part I: Rapes and Rumors of Rape
* Nicholas Kristof's Fox Pas(s)
* Putting Conservatives on the Couch: Transactional Analysis and the Torture Apologists
* The New Post-Colonial Racism
* Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War