Presidential Power: Extraordinary Renditions & Secret Prisons

July 11, 2007

Two student readings consider the controversy over charges that the U.S. is sending terrorism suspects to other countries where they are held in secret prisons and sometimes tortured. Discussion questions follow.

The "extraordinary renditions" of U.S. prisoners to foreign countries where they may be tortured raises serious questions about the use of presidential power. The first student reading below details the case of Khaled el-Masri, who was kidnapped, rendered to an Afghanistan prison, and ultimately released. It also surveys the reactions of human rights groups, U.S. courts, and El Masri himself.

The second student reading deals with the recent release by human rights groups of a list of 39 prisoners who have apparently disappeared into the U.S. overseas detention system—as well as the Council of Europe's confirmation that the U.S. maintained secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania. Discussion questions and an exercise calling for critical thinking follow.


Student Reading 1:

The case of Khaled el-Masri

"Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture."
—President George W. Bush, 1/27/05

"The United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances. The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture."
—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 12/5/05

On New Year's Eve 2003, Khaled el-Masri, a 43-year-old car salesman, was on a bus heading for a vacation in Macedonia. At the border, Macedonian officials confiscated his passport, then transferred him to a hotel, where he was held under guard for 23 days. Then he was taken to the Skopje airport where, he said, he was turned over to the CIA. "They took me to this room, and they hit me all over and they slashed my clothes with sharp objects, maybe knives or scissors." He was sodomized, taken to a plane and injected with drugs.

The plane arrived in what he later learned was Afghanistan. His captors kicked and beat him again and threw him into a small, filthy cell. He later drew from memory a floor plan of the prison for 60 Minutes. For more than four months, he said, he was never taken outside. In repeated interrogations, el-Masri was asked about contacts with Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, groups he insisted he had never been involved with, and about people he had never heard of.

El-Masri is a German citizen of Lebanese descent with a wife and four children. When he asked to see a German government representative or a lawyer, his captors ignored his request. In March 2004 he began a hunger strike that lasted 37 days. Eventually he was force fed through a tube, which made him ill and gave him "the worst pain of my life."

Five months after his abduction, on May 28, "They told me they had confused names and that they had cleared it up, but I can't imagine that. You can clean up switching names in a few minutes." He was flown out of Afghanistan and dumped on a road in a remote area of Albania. Armed men there took him to an airport and he was flown back to Germany. His wife and children were gone. After learning that they had returned to Lebanon, he was able to rejoin them.

What happened to El-Masri is among the documented cases of "extraordinary rendition," a secret CIA program. Terrorist suspects are abducted and flown to other countries, imprisoned and, according to a number of accounts, tortured. In the El-Masri case, as in others, the CIA will not acknowledge having anything to do with this practice.

Michael Scheuer, a senior CIA official in a counterterrorism center until the end of 2004, said that he helped to set up the program during the Clinton Administration. "Basically, the National Security Council gave us the mission, [to] take down these cells, dismantle them and take people off the streets so they can't kill Americans. They just didn't give us anywhere to take the people after we captured."

In a directive on "rendition" issued in 1995, President Bill Clinton declared that terrorism was "a potential threat to national security" and that the U.S. would "pursue vigorously efforts to deter and preempt, apprehend and prosecute" terrorists. American agents were authorized to carry out a rendition by "secretly putting the fugitive in a plane back to America or some third country for trial."

As Raymond Bonner writes in the New York Review of Books , "Under Clinton, the suspects were to be sent only to a third country to stand trial for a terrorist offense allegedly committed or planned in that country. Under Bush, suspected terrorists were now sent to third countries not for trial and not for crimes committed in that country, but for interrogation about alleged terrorist plots against the United States." What was "rendition" in the Clinton administration became "extraordinary rendition" in the Bush administration. (Bonner, "The CIA's Secret Torture, New York Review of Books , 1/11/07)

Commenting on the El-Masri case, Scheuer said, "You do the best you can. It's not a science...If you make a mistake, you make a mistake." ( 3/6/05 and

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on el-Masri's behalf in December 2005 against George Tenet, the former CIA director, and three companies that operate a fleet of planes suspected of being used for extraordinary renditions. In June 2006, the Council of Europe issued a report supporting the accuracy of el-Masri's story. In January 2007, a German court issued a warrant for the arrests of 13 Americans involved in his kidnapping. But the Bush administration has not permitted their extradition.

In May 2006, a Federal District Court in Virginia dismissed the ACLU suit on the grounds that it might reveal information harmful to national security. This view was upheld in March 2007 by a United States Court of Appeals. A unanimous three-judge panel ruled, "We recognize the gravity of our conclusions that el-Masri must be denied a judicial forum for his complaint. The inquiry is a difficult one, for it pits the judiciary's search for truth against the executive's duty to maintain the nation's security." The appeals court also stated that el-Masri could not win his case without exposing "how the CIA organizes, staffs and supervises its most sensitive intelligence operations."

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said this decision was "truly unbelievable. Actions like this are reminiscent of third world countries. It's just not tenable to have the CIA unaccountable for its most egregious violations of human rights." The organization appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. But in October the Court did not produce the four votes necessary to grant review of the Masri case or make any comment.

This left Khaled el-Masri with no place to present his evidence that American agents kidnapped, tortured, and imprisoned him, then after five months dumped him on a road in Albania.

In an interview with Amnesty International, el-Masri said, "I'm not against the idea of state secrets. I'm just saying that I was treated unjustly. I am an innocent man...I'm just looking for the American government to confirm that fact. They don't need to expose any state secrets to do that...I have absolutely nothing against the American people; my dispute is with the government, which treated me unjustly...If America is going to be in a permanent war, then the government should be honest and say that people no longer have their constitutional rights." (Amnesty International, Spring 2007)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that the CIA refuses to acknowledge or to deny any connection with extraordinary renditions?

3. What difference is there between a rendition in the Clinton administration and an extraordinary rendition in the Bush administration?

4. Which point of view is closest to yours-the appeals court ruling? Romero's? Why?

For critical thinking

Have students read the following:

Today we live in a world in which terrorists plot and commit vile and murderous acts, like those on 9/1l, just a little more than a year before el-Mari was seized. These terrorists are not acting on behalf of any nation. In Iraq, in Pakistan, in Spain, in Britain, around the world, their bombs explode in marketplaces, on trains and subway cars, in places of worship, and kill civilians indiscriminately. They do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. To prevent such acts, the United States employs CIA and other anti-terrorist agents whose job is to get information as fast as possible about, track down, seize, imprison and question those they have good reason to believe are a threat to Americans.

Their work is vital, for it saves lives and prevents terrible acts. Most of the time their information is accurate, but as Michael Scheuer said, "You do the best you can. It's not a science.  If you make a mistake, you make a mistake."

Five days after 9/11 on "Meet the Press," Vice President Dick Cheney said our government needs to "work through, sort of, the dark side. 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. 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."

Have students consider the above, first, in the "believing game," then in the "doubting game," and finally in a synthesizing activity. All of these processes are described in detail in "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website.


Student Reading 2:

Whereabouts Unknown

President Bush revealed on September 6, 2006, that the U.S. runs a system of secret detention centers for the "War on Terror." But he gave no information on how many detainees there are or where they are held.

On June 5, 2007, six human rights groups released a list of 39 people they have reason to believe the U.S. has imprisoned secretly. These groups are: the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, and two British groups, Reprieve and Cageprisoners.

Among the 39 individuals they cite are these:

Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani captured in Iraq. ABC News reported that he was being held in a secret detention center in Poland. (12/5/05) The Congressional Record included his name in "Terrorists No Longer a Threat List." (7/19/06) His whereabouts are unknown.

Abdul Basit, from either Saudia Arabia or Yemen, was captured and sent to a secret U.S. detention center before or during June 2004. The U.S. government has provided no information about him, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Mustafa Mohammed Fadil, an Egyptian and possibly also a Kenyan, was reportedly captured by Pakistani forces. He was named in a U.S. indictment concerning the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The FBI included his name on a "Most Wanted Terrorists" List in 2001. Later his name was removed without explanation. No information has been released about him, and his whereabouts are unknown.

In their report, "Off the Record: U.S. Responsibility for the Enforced Disappearances in the 'War on Terror," the human rights groups charge that the disappearance of such people as Ghul, Basit, and Fadil involve "violations of treaties binding on the United States, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Prisoners."

The groups charge the U.S. with operating a "wide-ranging detention system" for terrorism suspects. They are in "secret U.S.-controlled detention facilities outside the United States and detention in foreign-controlled facilities at the behest of the U.S. government." This system, they argue, lacks safeguards. For instance, prisoners are held even though they have not been charged with any specific crime. The prisoners are denied any opportunity to ask a judge to review their case.

Sources for the report include intelligence officers, military officials, prisoners, attorneys, and guards.

A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, would not comment on any of those listed, but said, "The plain truth is that we act in strict accord with American law." He added that CIA actions "have been very effective in disrupting plots and saving lives."

William Taft, a legal adviser at the State Department in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, disagreed: "I believe the United States should always account for people in its custody. When our own people are missing, we want to be able to insist on an accounting from their captors." ( New York Times , 6/7/07)

Last September, President Bush officially acknowledged that the CIA did hold detainees in secret overseas sites.

On June 7, 2007, investigators for the Council of Europe confirmed the existence of secret CIA prisons in Romania and Poland. They said their charge is based on information from intelligence agents in the U.S. and Europe and from members of the CIA counterterrorism center.

The Council of Europe report says the secret prisons operated from 2003 to 2005. "Large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice." According to the report, prisoners were often kept in "solitary confinement and extreme sensory deprivation in cramped cells, shackled and handcuffed at all times," sometimes at temperatures "so hot one would gasp for breath," and sometimes in the "freezing cold." The prisoners suffered from forced sleep deprivation and water-boarding, a practice that simulates drowning.

The governments of Romania and Poland deny the accusations.

On June 21, CIA Director General Michael Hayden announced that the agency was releasing a collection of documents on secret actions compiled in 1974. It will provide, he said, "a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency." But Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, disagreed that there were significant differences between the CIA's practices in the 1970s and today. Instead, he said, "There are uncanny parallels," including "warrantless wiretapping and concern about violation of kidnapping laws." ( New York Times, 6/22/07)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Do you agree with Gimigliano's statement that "we act in strict accord with American law"? Why or why not?

3. Consider President Bush's acknowledgement that the CIA holds detainees in secret overseas sites. What constitutional authority might he cite to justify these secret detention sites? On what constitutional grounds do human rights groups oppose them? Which point of view do you favor and why?

4. What basic rights do American prisoners have in the U.S.? Should American prisoners at overseas sites have the same rights? Why or why not?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: