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BOOK REVIEW

British journalist sheds detailed light on a US antiterrorism tactic

In "Ghost Plane," investigative reporter Stephen Grey delves into the covert US practice of extraordinary rendition. (JOHN GOETZ)

I once heard a CIA official remark that if the American people were given a choice, they would choose not to know about the dark side of the war on terror ism. It was the media who foisted those unsavory secrets on them, he said.

Like it or not, British investigative journalist Stephen Grey unveils that hidden world in stark detail. His new, meticulously footnoted book, "Ghost Plane," outlines the most controversial US weapon in the war on terrorism: extraordinary rendition, the covert US practice of kidnapping terrorism suspects and secretly transporting them to countries where torture is routinely used in interrogations.

For those who have been working to uncover the story of extraordinary rendition for the past three years, Grey is no stranger. He is the journalist who obtained comprehensive flight logs for a fleet of private jets that had been used by the CIA to transport terrorist suspects to Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and Afghanistan.

Ironically, the CIA used these private planes because they were less conspicuous than government-owned aircraft. But the civilian nature of the planes meant that ordinary people could access their records.

Grey eventually found his very own "Deep Throat," who was able to print out complete flight plans dating back for years. The logs -- which were, at first glance, pages of dates and mundane airport codes -- were a journalistic coup that eventually shed light on the scope of the rendition program (hundreds of prisoners are believed to have been transferred in these planes) and corroborated the stories of men who claimed to have been taken away in the planes, only to be returned to their homes, years later, with tales of electric shocks and beatings. The book gives blow-by-blow accounts of three well-known cases and breaks news on others that have never been written about.

In this way, other journalists investigating the subject benefit ed from Grey's logs, from Dana Priest, the Washington Post reporter who wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces on the CIA's secret prisons in Eastern Europe, to the New York Times team that Grey worked with to investigate the origin of the fleet.

I first learned about Grey in 2004, when I was tracking a Gulfstream jet, tail number N379P, that a Pakistani newspaper had cited for taking a terrorism suspect from an airport in Karachi. The jet was registered to a Dedham-based company called Premier Executive Transport Services , a mysterious firm whose only public face was the Dedham law firm Hill & Plakias .

I discovered that all of Premier's officers were fictitious people, without home addresses or phone numbers, who had received their Social Security numbers within the past 10 years. (Unfortunately, Grey's book credits the Post for discovering this.)

But the truth about Premier only made the mystery bigger. I wanted more facts about the plane. Where else had it gone? Who else had it taken? Grey eventually found out. After countless hours analyzing flights and conducting interviews with lawyers, prisoners, and US officials, Grey names 20 more prisoners in "Ghost Plane" who were "rendered" by N379P, including Abu Zubaydah , a senior Al Qaeda member, and Martin Mubanga, a British-Zambian captured in Zambia and released from Guantanamo Bay in 2005. Grey has posted the logs online, for others to glean whatever added information they can (ghostplane.net/flightlog).

Grey's book is a celebration of facts, not prose. But he still makes an effort to reconstruct for his readers the smell and feel of a prison cell that he was never allowed to enter.

"Welcome to the Grave, as this place is known to the inmates of a global network of prisons," he writes of the cells at Syria's infamous Palestine Branch, which are "a little larger than coffins."

Grey doesn't tell a one-sided story. He also interviews CIA officers who raised the alarm about terrorism long before 9/11.

He tries to convey the excitement in the air the moment a predator drone flying above Afghanistan transmitted the first pictures back to terrorism officials in Washington, D.C., who rushed to the CIA in the middle of the night to view bin Laden wandering in his flowing white robes.

Grey describes rendition as a bad compromise, a method of last resort for US officials who were unwilling to craft a program of their own.

"In essence, the US government chose to outsource its handling of terrorists because neither the first President Bush nor Clinton nor his Republican opponents were prepared to establish a proper legal framework for the United States to capture, interrogate, and imprison terrorists itself," he writes.

Grey explains, in gritty images, how post-9/11 America must balance the fear of a terrorist attack against the fear of losing our sense of justice as a country. In his last chapter, he dares to muse on larger, more practical questions. Does torture work? If so, does it outweigh the backlash it must provoke in the enemy? Every American, Grey argues, should care about the answer, and should not be content to be left in the dark.

Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, By Stephen Grey, St. Martin’s, 372 pp., $25.95

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