Online project uncovers details of way in which CIA carried out kidnaps and secret detentions following September 11 attacks• The Rendition Project interactive • CIA rendition flights explained
A groundbreaking research project has mapped the US government’s global kidnap and secret detention programme, shedding unprecedented light on one of the most controversial secret operations of recent years.
The interactive online project – by two British universities and a legal charity – has uncovered new details of the way in which the so-called extraordinary rendition programme operated for years in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to avoid detection in the face of growing public concern.
The Rendition Project website is intended to serve as a research tool that not only collates all the publicly available data about the programme, but can continue to be updated as further information comes to light.
Data already collated shows the full extent of the UK’s logistical support for the programme: aircraft associated with rendition operations landed at British airports more than 1,600 times.
Although no detainees are known to have been aboard the aircraft while they were landing in the UK, the CIA was able to refuel during operations that involved some of the most notorious renditions of the post-September 11 years, including one in which two men were kidnapped in Sweden and flown to Egypt, where they suffered years of torture, and others that involved detainees being flown to and from a secret prison in Romania.
The database also tracks rendition flights into and out of Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Islands, and suggests that flight crews enjoyed rest-and-recreation stopovers on the Turks and Caicos Islands. Both are British overseas territories.
The Rendition Project is the result of three years of work, funded by the UK taxpayer through the Economic and Social Research Council, by Ruth Blakeley, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, and Sam Raphael, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, working with Crofton Black, an investigator with the legal charity Reprieve.
“By bringing together a vast collection of documents and data, the Rendition Project publishes the most detailed picture to date of the scale, operation and evolution of the global system of rendition and secret detention in the so-called war on terror,” said Blakeley.
Raphael said: “The database makes a major contribution to efforts to track CIA rendition flights, and provides the clearest picture so far of what was going on. It also serves as an important tool for investigators, journalists and lawyers to delve into in more detail.”
Black added: “The Rendition Project lays bare the inner workings of the logistics network underlying the US government’s secret prison programme. It’s the most accurate and comprehensive resource so far published.”
The data includes details on 11,006 flights by aeroplanes linked to the CIA’s rendition programme since 2002. Of those, 1,556 flights are classed as confirmed or suspected rendition flights, or flagged as “suspicious”, depending on the strength of the supporting evidence surrounding each.
The researchers have also confirmed 20 “dummy” flights within the data: flight paths logged with air traffic controllers, but never taken. Instead, the planes took a different route to different airports along the way, to pick up or drop off a detainee. About a dozen more flight paths are marked as possible dummy flights.
The website also weaves together first-hand testimony of detainees of their mistreatment within the secret prisons; the layout and conditions of the facilities; the movements of detainees across the globe; and documents that detail outsourcing to corporations that offered logistical support, from flights to catering and hotel reservations. In some cases, it is unclear whether the airline companies would have been aware of the purpose of the flights.
The project also brings to light new set to launchinformation on the methods used to avoid detection of rendition flights, particularly as journalists became aware of the programme. The project highlights “tarmac transfers” – occasions on which two planes involved in rendition met on remote airfields. The researchers believe these occasions were used to transfer detainees from one plane to another, making their rendition route far more difficult to track.
Among the prisoners who appear to have been switched from one aircraft to another in this way is Abu Faraj al-Libi, who is currently being held at the Guantánamo detention camp in Cuba. After being captured in Pakistan in May 2005, he appears to have been flown to Afghanistan, where he was switched to another aircraft and taken to Bucharest.