Aboard Air CIA!


Bench Warmer
Oct 26, 2004
The agency ran a secret charter service, shuttling detainees to interrogation facilities worldwide. Was it legal? What's next? A NEWSWEEK investigation
Graphic by Newsweek; Plane photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt​
Holding pattern: The agency has been operating a Boeing 737 as part of a top-secret global charter

By Michael Hirsh, Mark Hosenball and John Barry

Feb. 28 issue - Like many detainees with tales of abuse, Khaled el-Masri had a hard time getting people to believe him. Even his wife didn't know what to make of his abrupt, five-month disappearance last year. Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, says he was taken off a bus in Macedonia in south-central Europe while on holiday on Dec. 31, 2003, then whisked in handcuffs to a motel outside the capital city of Skopje. Three weeks later, on the evening of Jan. 23, 2004, he was brought blindfolded aboard a jet with engines noisily revving, according to his lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic. Masri says he climbed high stairs "like onto a regular passenger airplane" and was chained to clamps on the bare metal floor and wall of the jet.

Masri says he was then flown to Afghanistan, where at a U.S. prison facility he was shackled, repeatedly punched and questioned about extremists at his mosque in Ulm, Germany. Finally released months later, the still-mystified Masri was deposited on a deserted road leading into Macedonia, where he brokenly tried to describe his nightmarish odyssey to a border guard. "The man was laughing at me," Masri told The New York Times, which disclosed his story last month. "He said: 'Don't tell that story to anyone because no one will believe it. Everyone will laugh'."

getCSS("3235842");No one's laughing these days, least of all the CIA. NEWSWEEK has obtained previously unpublished flight plans indicating the agency has been operating a Boeing 737 as part of a top-secret global charter servicing clandestine interrogation facilities used in the war on terror. And the Boeing's flight information, detailed to the day, seems to confirm Masri's tale of abduction. Gnjidic, Masri's lawyer, called the information "very, very important" to his case, which is being investigated as a kidnapping by a Munich prosecutor. In what could prove embarrassing to President Bush, Gnjidic added that a German TV station was planning to feature Masri's tale ahead of Bush's much-touted trip to Germany this week. German Interior Minister Otto Schily recently visited CIA Director Porter Goss to discuss the case, and German sources tell NEWSWEEK that Schily was seeking an apology. CIA officials declined to comment on that meeting or any aspect of Masri's story.

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— Creates a new position, Director of National Intelligence, who will be the principal adviser to the president and coordinate the nation’s spy agencies. The position will be above the CIA director.

— Establishes a National Counterterrorism Center for planning intelligence missions and coordinating information on terror threats and responses.

— Creates a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board of private citizens, with access to all government agencies, to oversee privacy protections. — Establishes minimum standards for birth certificates and driver’s licenses and improves security of Social Security cards.

— Requires a national transportation security strategy, including advanced airline passenger prescreening and biometric identification systems.

— Tightens baggage screening procedures and security in screening areas.

— Authorizes money to improve air cargo security and studies of blast-resistant cargo and baggage containers.

— Upgrades security features on pilot licenses. — Develop strategies to counter shoulder-fired, stinger-type portable weapons.

— Tests of advanced sensors, videos and unmanned aircraft to secure northern border and new plans to survey southwest border with unmanned aircraft.

— Adds 2,000 Border Patrol agents and 800 immigration and customs agents every year for the next five years.

— Strengthens visa application requirements.

— Makes receiving military-type training from a designated terrorist group an offense that can result in deportation of non-Americans. — Requires the Homeland Security Department to implement quickly biometrics screening for those entering and leaving the country.

— Provides funds to combat money laundering and financial crimes.

— Aids criminal background checks of private security guards.

— Establishes mandatory minimum sentences for possessing or trafficking in missile systems built to destroy aircraft or other destructive weapons. — Makes hoax terrorist threats and giving material support to suspected terrorists criminal offenses. — Grants wiretapping and investigative authority to pursue “lone wolf” terrorists not affiliated with a terrorist group or state.

— Recommends increased diplomacy in the Islamic world to combat spread of terrorism and promote democracy. Maintains financial aid to Pakistan and investment in Afghanistan.
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The evidence backing up Masri's account of being "snatched" by American operatives is only the latest blow to the CIA in the ongoing detention-abuse scandal. Together with previously disclosed flight plans of a smaller Gulfstream V jet, the Boeing 737's travels are further evidence that a global "ghost" prison system, where terror suspects are secretly interrogated, is being operated by the CIA. Several of the Gulfstream flights allegedly correlate with other "renditions," the controversial practice of secretly spiriting suspects to other countries without due process. "The more evidence that comes out, the clearer it is that there's been a stunning failure of accountability," says lawyer John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

CONTINUED: CIA Officials are Fretful About Secret Prison Network