THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

CIA mission was secret for years

Top terrorists were shifted out of Guantanamo

By Matt Apuzzo
Associated Press / August 7, 2010

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WASHINGTON — A white, unmarked Boeing 737 landed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before dawn on a CIA mission so secretive, many in the nation’s war on terrorism were kept in the dark.

Four of the nation’s most highly valued terrorist prisoners were aboard.

They arrived at Guantanamo on Sept. 24, 2003, years earlier than the United States has ever disclosed. Then, months later, they were just as quietly whisked away before the Supreme Court could give them access to lawyers.

The transfer allowed the United States to interrogate the detainees in CIA “black sites’’ for two more years without allowing them to speak with attorneys or human rights observers or challenge their detention in US courts. Had they remained at the Guantanamo Bay prison for just three more months, they would have been afforded those rights.

“This was all just a shell game to hide detainees from the courts,’’ said Jonathan Hafetz, a Seton Hall University law professor who has represented several detainees.

Removing them from Guantanamo Bay underscores how worried President George W. Bush’s administration was that the Supreme Court might lift the veil of secrecy on the detention program. It also shows how insistent the Bush administration was that terrorists must be held outside the US court system.

Years later, the program’s legacy continues to complicate President Obama’s efforts to prosecute the terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The arrival and speedy departure from Guantanamo were pieced together by The Associated Press using flight records and interviews with current and former US officials and others familiar with the CIA’s detention program. All spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials at the White House, Justice Department, Pentagon, and CIA were consulted on the prisoner transfer, officials said.

“The so-called black sites and enhanced interrogation methods, which were administered on the basis of guidance from the Department of Justice, are a thing of the past,’’ CIA spokesman George Little said.

The American Civil Liberties Union renewed its call for a broad criminal investigation into the detention program yesterday.

“Secret detention constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and the officials who authorized the CIA’s secret prisons and torture program should be held accountable,’’ said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

At least four Al Qaeda operatives, some of the CIA’s biggest captures, were on the plane to Guantanamo: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.

Binalshibh and Hawsawi helped plan the 9/11 attacks. Nashiri was the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Zubaydah was an Al Qaeda travel facilitator. They spent months overseas enduring some of the harshest interrogation tactics in US history.

By late summer 2003, the CIA believed the men had revealed their best secrets. The agency needed somewhere to hold them, but no longer needed to conduct prolonged interrogations.

The US naval facility at Guantanamo Bay seemed a good fit. Bush had selected the first six people to face military tribunals there, and a federal appeals court unanimously ruled that detainees could not use US courts to challenge their imprisonment.

And the CIA had just constructed a new facility, which would become known as Strawberry Fields, separate from the main prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The prisoner transfer flight, outlined in documents and interviews, visited five CIA prisons in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Morocco, and Guantanamo Bay. The flight logs were compiled by European authorities investigating the CIA program.

The existence of a CIA prison at Guantanamo was reported in 2004, but it has always been unclear who was there.