The US Practice of Rendition

The US practice of rendering terrorist suspects abroad—in other words, of transferring prisoners to foreign custody outside of normal legal proceedings—predates the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.  During the administration of President Bill Clinton, the CIA rendered a number of Egyptian terrorist suspects from countries such as Albania and Croatia to Egypt, where some of them had previously been sentenced to death in absentia.2 After September 2001, however, the CIA’s rendition practices changed.  Rather than returning people to their home countries to face “justice” (albeit justice that included torture and grossly unfair trials), the CIA began handing people over to third countries apparently to facilitate abusive interrogations.

The US may have had several reasons for transferring suspects to Jordan for detention and interrogation. The CIA already had a history of close relations with the Jordanian intelligence agency; there was apparently a shortage of Arabic speakers on CIA staff, and CIA officials may have believed that Jordanian officials were particularly well versed in counterterrorism or perhaps would be particularly good at keeping the fact of the detentions secret. Yet Jordan was already notorious for torturing security detainees, and this would have been well known to US officials at the time of the transfers. As detailed in this report, many of the detainees were returned to CIA custody immediately after intensive periods of abusive interrogation in Jordan, and certain US officials, including former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, have made statements suggesting that detainees were knowingly sent to a place where they would be abused. The evidence indicates that torture in such cases was not a regrettable consequence of rendition; it may have been the purpose.

In a classified briefing for US senators not long after the September 11 attacks, then-CIA Director George Tenet reportedly alluded to the thinking behind these new renditions.  Asked whether the US government was planning to seek the transfer of Al Qaeda suspects from abusive governments, Tenet suggested that it might be preferable for some suspects to remain in the hands of foreign authorities able to use more aggressive interrogation methods on them.3  Cofer Black, who served as the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 1999 until May 2002, put the matter more bluntly.  In discussing the detention of “nearly three thousand al-Qa’ida terrorists and their supporters,” he said that “there was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11.  After 9/11 the gloves come off.”4

Just after the September 11 attacks, US President George W. Bush signed a classified presidential directive giving the CIA expanded authority to arrest, interrogate, detain, and render terrorist suspects arrested abroad.5  Since that time, the US is believed to have rendered terrorism suspects to the custody of Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Syria, in addition to Jordan.  But the available evidence suggests that Jordan was the first country to receive rendered detainees after September 11, and that Jordan accepted the largest number of detainees.6

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, under pressure from European allies because of press revelations about CIA activities in Europe, offered a vigorous defense of US rendition practices in December 2005.  Asserting that the practice of rendition was a “vital tool in combating transnational terrorism,” Rice claimed that the United States and other countries have long relied on renditions to transport terrorist suspects from the country where they were arrested to their home country or to other countries where they can be held and questioned.  She insisted, moreover, that the United States “does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.”  Instead, she explained that, where necessary, “the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.”7

The systematic nature of the abuses suffered by prisoners rendered to Jordan contradicts Rice’s bland reassurances.  If the Jordanians did indeed promise the US authorities that prisoners rendered there would not be tortured, it was a promise that neither the US nor Jordan believed.

A description of the rendition process provided by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in August 2006 was somewhat more revealing.  Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gonzales explained that “we seek assurances, whenever we transfer someone, that in fact that they will not be tortured.” He admitted, however, that: “you know, we are not there—(chuckles)—in the jail cell in foreign countries where we render someone.”8

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer who claims to have initiated the terrorist rendition program during the Clinton administration, rightly dismisses these assurances as “legal niceties”—pledges meant to look good on paper, which provide no real protection. He has said that both CIA agents and their superiors were aware that abuses were likely.

As Scheuer has explained:

[T]he non-C.I.A. staff members . . . knew that taking detainees to Egypt or elsewhere might yield treatment not consonant with United States legal practice. How did they know?

Well, several senior C.I.A. officers, myself included, were confident that common sense would elude that bunch, and so we told them—again and again and again. Each time a decision to do a rendition was made, we reminded the lawyers and policy makers that Egypt was Egypt, and that Jimmy Stewart never starred in a movie called “Mr. Smith Goes to Cairo.”

They usually listened, nodded, and then inserted a legal nicety by insisting that each country to which the agency delivered a detainee would have to pledge it would treat him according to the rules of its own legal system.9

The growing weight of evidence and international expert opinion indicates that diplomatic assurances cannot protect people at risk of torture on return.10  Part of what makes such promises ineffective is the nature of torture, which is practiced in secret, using techniques that may not leave marks and may defy detection (for example, mock drowning, sexual assault, and threats of violence). And detainees subjected to torture are often afraid to complain to anyone about the abuse for fear of reprisals against them or their family members.

It is unknown precisely how many people have been rendered to foreign custody since 2001.  Representative Ed Markey, a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, told the New Yorker in 2005 that he had been unable to obtain a count. “I’ve asked people at the CIA for numbers,” he said. “They refuse to answer. All they will say is that they’re in compliance with the law.”11  CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed in a September 7, 2007, speech before the Council on Foreign Relations that fewer than 100 people had been rendered abroad since the September 11 attacks: “mid-range two figures,” in his words.12

Jordan’s General Intelligence Department

Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) (Da’irat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma) is the country’s main intelligence agency, charged with investigating threats to national security.13  TTThe GID has long had a close and cooperative working relationship with the CIA.14  That relationship deepened further still in the wake of the September 11 attacks.15  Given the intimate nature of GID/CIA links, it is hardly surprising that the CIA turned to the GID when President Bush gave the agency expanded authority to detain and question people suspected of links to terrorism.

The GID’s abusive interrogation practices are well known.  Numerous former GID prisoners have reported that while in GID custody they were subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  In particular, many have claimed that guards brought them to the basement of the GID detention building in Wadi Sir and administered the falaqa: beating them on the soles of their feet.16  Others have said that they were hit, deprived of sleep, or given pills and injections that induced feelings of extreme anxiety.

These men’s claims are supported by the findings of UN envoys and international organizations. In 2006, after carrying out a visit to Jordan, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture issued a report concluding that: “The practice of torture is widespread in Jordan, and in some places routine, [including] the General Intelligence Directorate (GID).”  Although the Special Rapporteur was denied access to interview prisoners held in GID detention in Amman, he cited credible and consistent allegations that torture was used at GID headquarters “to extract confessions and obtain intelligence in pursuit of counter-terrorism and national security objectives.”17 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported similar findings.18

US officials were well aware of these abuses, including during 2001 to 2004.  The Jordan chapter of the US State Department’s 2001 human rights report states that prisoners in the custody of Jordanian police and security forces have alleged that “methods of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions, and extended solitary confinement.”19

The GID Detention Facility at Wadi Sir

Prisoners transferred from US to Jordanian custody from 2001 to 2004 were held at the GID’s main headquarters in Amman, located in the Jandawil district in Wadi Sir. The headquarters, which appear to cover nearly an acre of land, contain a large four-story detention facility that Human Rights Watch visited in August 2007.20

The building that holds the detention facility is in the shape of two triangles that together form a square; the facility itself takes up approximately half of the building, i.e., one of the triangles.  Each floor of the detention facility, except the top floor, consists of three main corridors (the sides of the triangle) running around a central courtyard.  The administrative offices and interrogation rooms are on the second floor of the building, while visiting rooms are on the ground floor.  During the period that Human Rights Watch inspected the facility, all of the detainees in custody were held on the second floor.21  There are also many cells on the ground floor and third floor, however, as well as a small number of cells on the fourth floor, which includes a few collective cells and what the director called the “women’s section” of the facility.22  In addition, the facility has a basement where many prisoners have claimed that they were brought for the most violent treatment.

Prisoners in GID detention at Wadi Sir are kept in single-person cells and are prohibited from speaking with one another, but some have managed to communicate via the back window of their cells.  (Each cell faces onto the central courtyard, and has a window looking out on the yard.)

2 See Human Rights Watch, “Black Hole: The Fate of Islamists Rendered to Egypt,” Vol. 17, No. 5(E), May 2005, pp. 19-24 (describing US involvement in the rendition to Egypt of Tal’at Fu’ad Qassim, Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, Shawqi Salama Mustafa, Muhammad Hassan Mahmud Tita, Ahmad Isma’il ‘Uthman, and ‘Issam ‘Abd al-Tawab ‘Abd al-Alim); Jane Mayer, “Outsourcing Torture,” New Yorker, February 14, 2005 (describing the genesis of the rendition program).

3 See John Barry, Michael Hirsh, and Michael Isikoff, “The Roots of Torture,” Newsweek, May 24, 2004.

4 J. Cofer Black, Unclassified Testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, US Congress, 107th Congress, 2nd Session, September 26, 2002.

5 President Bush reportedly signed the directive, which remains classified, on September 17, 2001.  Although the precise wording of the directive is not known, it has been widely reported that, among other things, the directive greatly expanded the CIA’s power to transfer suspected terrorists to foreign countries for detention and interrogation.  See Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, “Rule Change Lets C.I.A. Freely Send Suspects Abroad to Jails,” New York Times, March 6, 2005; American Civil Liberties Union, “CIA Finally Acknowledges Existence of Presidential Order on Detention Facilities Abroad,” November 14, 2006 (explaining that the CIA acknowledged the existence of the directive in response to an ongoing ACLU lawsuit).

6 By way of comparison, seven people are known to have been rendered to Egypt by the CIA since 2001.

7 Condoleezza Rice, “Remarks upon her Departure for Europe,” December 5, 2005.

8 Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the future of military commissions following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Federal News Service, transcript of hearing, August 2, 2006.

9 Michael Scheuer, “Exporting Detainees,” International Herald Tribune, March 12, 2005.

10 See generally Human Rights Watch, “‘Empty Promises:’ Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard against Torture,” Vol. 16, No. 4 (D), April 2004;  Human Rights Watch, “Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture,” Vol. 17, No. 3(D), April 2005.  For information on the ineffective of diplomatic assurances used in returns to Jordan, see Julia Hall, Witness Statement, November 6, 2006 (available at

11 Jane Mayer, “Outsourcing Torture,” New Yorker, February 14, 2005.

12 Remarks of Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden at the Council on Foreign Relations, September 7, 2007.

13 The General Intelligence Department was established in 1964. Law No. 24 of 1964 mandates the GID to work “for the security and safety” (salama) of Jordan.  The law stipulates that the prime minister shall designate the GID’s specific duties in writing and that these are to remain confidential.

                        The king of Jordan appoints the GID director, who reports to the prime minister. GID officers are considered military personnel.  For detailed information about the GID and its practices, see Human Rights Watch, “Suspicious Sweeps: The General Intelligence Department and Jordan’s Rule of Law Problem,” Vol. 18, No. 6(E), September 2006.

14 Human Rights Watch interview with former CIA official, Washington, DC, February 16, 2006.

15 Ken Silverstein, a journalist who follows intelligence issues closely, claims that the GID “has surpassed Israel’s Mossad as America’s most effective allied counter-terrorism agency in the Middle East.”  A former CIA official told Silverstein that “Jordan’s intelligence partnership with the U.S. is so close ... that the CIA has had technical personnel ‘virtually embedded’ at GID headquarters.”  Ken Silverstein, “U.S. partnership with Jordan was targeted,” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2005.

16 The falaqa technique has a long history; it is believed to have been used in the Arab world since the tenth century.  As one expert on torture explained, “[t]he soles of the feet are not thickly muscled, and so caning or whipping them is especially painful.  Depending on the weight of the rod and the intensity and frequency of the blows, this practice can yield mildly swollen feet to broken bones that damage a person permanently.”  Part of attraction of this method, in modern times, is that its physical traces disappear quickly.  Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 273-76.

17 Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, Addendum: Mission to Jordan, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/4/33/Add.3 (5 January 2007).

18 See, for example, Amnesty International, “Jordan: ‘Your confessions are ready for you to sign’: Detention and torture of political suspects,” MDE 16/005/2006, July 2006; Human Rights Watch, “Suspicious Sweeps.”

19 US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2001 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, March 4, 2002.

20 In the last two weeks of August 2007, Human Rights Watch was given permission to conduct a series of visits to the GID detention facility.  Besides being allowed to see the entire building, Human Rights Watch researchers were granted access to certain prisoner registries and other official information.  During this period, our investigators also visited five Jordanian prisons and interviewed more than 100 prisoners in private. See Human Rights Watch, “Jordan: Rampant Beatings in Prison Go Unpunished,” August 30, 2007.

21 In this report, references to the second, third, and fourth floors correspond to the American usage, by which the ground floor is the first floor.

22 The cells are numbered, so that cell numbers 1 through 31 are on the ground floor, 32 through 63 on the second floor, and 64 through 95 on the third floor.