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New America Media September 21, 2006

Torture Case Casts Light on America's Most Secret Spy Agency

By Jeffrey Klein and Paolo Pontoniere

Editor's Note: The rendition and torture of Maher Arar, detailed this week in a Canadian government report, may be linked to an off-the-books U.S. agency that some security experts say now receives the bulk of funding for covert intelligence operations. Jeffrey Klein, a founding editor of Mother Jones, this summer received a Loeb, journalism's top award for business reporting. Paolo Pontoniere is a New America Media European commentator.

The U.S. government's Gulfstream jets are back in the news.

On Tuesday, following a two year inquiry, Canadian Justice Dennis O'Connor released an 822-page report detailing how Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, was illegally rendered by American agents "to Syria against his wishes and in the face of statements that he would be tortured if sent there." The Americans flew the shackled Arar to Jordan on a Gulfstream III jet and drove him to Syria, where he was beaten until he confessed that he had trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, where he'd never been. For 10 more months he was caged in a coffin-size cell before his wife's campaign to have him released succeeded. Justice O'Connor concluded that "categorically there is no evidence that Arar did anything wrong or was a security threat."

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales categorically denied U.S. responsibility in the affair. "We were not responsible for his removal to Syria," claimed Gonzales, who said he had not read the Canadian report. "I'm not aware that he was tortured." Arar's removal to Syria, Gonzales said, "was a deportation." But, "even if it were a rendition," Gonzales went on, the U.S. government works seeks to ensure "that they will not be tortured."

Gonzales' denial mirrors what President Bush and Secretary Rice have said on numerous occasions.

Nonetheless, Justice O'Connor's report, an Amnesty International investigation, Federal Aviation Adminstration flight records, the New York Times and many others agree that on October 8, at 9:40 a.m., a Gulfstream III jet with a tail number of N829MG took off from Teterboro, N.J. After a stop-off at Washington's Dulles Airport, it departed at 1:36 p.m. from Bangor, Maine, bound for Rome and then Jordan.

According to Justice O'Connor's report, Arar was blindfolded in Jordan and driven by American authorities to a secret Syrian intelligence service jail known as the "Palestine Section." "I was shut away underground, in a cell 6-foot by 3 called 'The Tomb,'" Arar told investigators. "It was full or rats and it was always dark...I was brutally beaten and tortured with iron chains and electric shocks."

The Gulfstream jet used to render Arar is of particular interest because its operator, according to a report in Britain's New Statesman two years ago by Stephen Grey, a British journalist who also writes for the Sunday Times of London and The New York Times, was "the US's Special Collection Service. It runs a fleet of luxury planes, as well as regular military transports, that has moved thousands of prisoners around the world since 11 September 2001."

The Special Collection Service (SCS) is a secret agency jointly operated by the NSA and the CIA. It doesn't officially exist, and is off the media's radar. Even seasoned security analysts who will usually discuss the most controversial subjects won't say a word about the SCS "unless of course they're willing to incur into the wrath of the NSA," notes a former intelligence official on condition of anonymity.

According to a Greek investigation into the tapping of more than 100 Greek leaders' cell phones during the 2004 Athens' Olympics, some of the eavesdropped conversations were transmitted to a site near Laurel, Md. John Pike, an iconoclastic watchdog who heads GlobalSecurity.org., a think tank based in Virginia near the Pentagon, believes the area is home to the SCS headquarters.

What little is known about the SCS is due mainly to Pike. About a decade ago, in his prior job at the Federation of American Scientists, Pike posted on the Internet satellite photos of two buildings in a forested patch in Maryland. Pike said that SCS headquarters are disguised as a bland corporate campus, and that to receive communication from the field the SCS may be using State Department facilities.

Claims that SCS performs such activities are discounted by Vincent Cannistraro, a former top official in the CIA's Directorate of Operations and a former Director of Intelligence Programs for the National Security Council. "The SCS doesn't operate domestically and doesn't target political subjects. It is a tactical tool deployed abroad to collect information about terrorist activities."

There's no dispute, however, that SCS personnel operate undercover. Overseas they set up sophisticated interception systems with code names like Oratory and Austin. Satellite relay stations for these intercepted communications are located in U.S. embassies -- and in Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand embassies overseas as well, according to a Village Voice investigation.

Why have so few reporters followed Pike's lead? "Because it's a highly clandestine operation and the government is damn serious about it," Pike says.

Since 9/11, all government information collection efforts have intensified, and Cannistraro believes it's likely the SCS is now receiving the lion's share of the increased funding and personnel fed to the covert intelligence community.

Could agents from the SCS now be manning the U.S. rendering teams -- the so-called "special removal units?" This would accord with their urgent post-9/11 mandate: Become an active hunter of information rather than a passive collector. If SCS black ops teams are involved in the U.S.'s "extreme renditions," their job may be to compare the intelligence, however worthless, collected from outsourced torture to intelligence they've electronically intercepted.

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, an embarrassed Justice Department spokesman revised Mr. Gonzales' denials of the previous day. He said the Attorney General had intended to make only a narrow point: that deportations are now handled by the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Justice. Also on Wednesday, Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced five "resolutions of inquiry" aimed at forcing the release of government documents related to the Arar case.

Under Congressional rules, the resolutions must be voted on in five House committees within 14 days, or Mr. Markey will be able to force a vote by the full House. If any inquiries are approved, it may be the first time even indirect official light is cast upon the Special Collection Service.


Copyright 2006, Pacific News Service