The intelligence factory: How America makes its enemies disappear
By Petra Bartosiewicz
As the “global war on terror” enters its ninth year, under the leadership of its second commander in chief, certain ongoing assumptions have gained the force of common wisdom. One of them, as Barack Obama explained in a major policy speech last May, is that we have entered a “new era” that will “present new challenges to our application of the law” and require “new tools to protect the American people.” Another, as Obama made clear in the same speech, is that the purpose of these new tools and laws is “to prevent attacks instead of simply prosecuting those who try to carry them out.” These positions are appealing, but they fail to address what might be thought of as an underlying economic disequilibrium. The continued political appetite for a global war on terror has led to a commodification of “actionable intelligence,” which is a product, chiefly, of human prisoners like Aafia Siddiqui. Because this war, by definition, has no physical or temporal boundaries, the demand for such intelligence has no limit. But the world contains a relatively small number of terrorists and an even smaller number of terrorist plots. Our demand for intelligence far outstrips the supply of prisoners. Where the United States itself has been unable to meet that demand, therefore, it has embraced a solution that is the essence of globalization. We outsource the work to countries, like Pakistan, whose political circumstances allow them to produce prisoners with far greater efficiency.
What the CIA and the FBI understand as an acquisition solution, however, others see as a human-rights debacle. Just as thousands of political dissidents, suspected criminals, and enemies of the state were “disappeared” from Latin America over the course of several decades of CIA-funded dirty wars, so too have hundreds of “persons of interest” around the world begun to disappear as a consequence of the global war on terror, which in many ways has become a globalized version of those earlier, regional failures of democracy.
Many individual cases are well known. Binyam Mohamed, an alleged conspirator in Jose Padilla’s now debunked “dirty bomb plot,” was arrested in Karachi in 2002 and flown by the CIA to Morocco, where he was tortured for eighteen months. He eventually emerged into the non-covert prison system, as a detainee at Guantánamo, and was released earlier this year without charge. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was arrested at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport in 2002 while on his way home from a vacation, flown by the CIA to a Syrian prison, held in a coffin-size cell for nearly a year, and then released, also without charges. Saud Memon, a Pakistani businessman rumored to own the plot of land where the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered, was arrested in 2003, held by the United States at an unknown location until 2006, then “released” to Pakistan, where in April 2007 he finally emerged, badly beaten and weighing just eighty pounds, on the doorstep of his Karachi home. He died a few weeks later.
The total number of men and women who have been kidnapped and imprisoned for U.S. intelligence-gathering purposes is difficult to determine. Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, the main theaters of combat, Pakistan is our primary source of publicly known detainees—researchers at Seton Hall University estimated in 2006 that two thirds of the prisoners at Guantánamo were arrested in Pakistan or by Pakistani authorities—and so it is reasonable to assume that the country is also a major supplier of ghost detainees. Human Rights Watch has tracked enforced disappearances in Pakistan since before 2001. The group’s counterterrorism director, Joanne Mariner, told me that the number of missing persons in the country grew “to a flood” as U.S. counterterrorism operations peaked between 2002 and 2004. In that same three-year period, U.S. aid to Pakistan totaled $4.7 billion, up from $9.1 million in the three years prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, did claim in his 2006 memoir, In the Line of Fire, that his country had delivered 369 Al Qaeda suspects to the United States for “millions of dollars” in bounties (a boast he neatly elides in the Urdu edition). It is reasonable to suspect this figure is on the low side.
One reason estimates are so inconclusive, of course, is that the business of disappearance is inherently ambiguous. Missing-person reports filed in Pakistan rarely claim that the detained individual was picked up by the CIA or the FBI. Instead, the detainee is almost always arrested by “city police” or “civilian clothed men” or unidentified “secret agency personnel” who arrive in “unmarked vehicles.” The secretary-general of the Pakistani NGO Human Rights Commission, Ibn Abdur Rehman, described the process. “A man is picked up at his house, brought to the police station,” he said. “The family comes with him and are told, ‘He’ll be released in an hour, go home.’ They come back in an hour and are told, ‘Sorry, he’s been handed off to the intelligence people and taken to Islamabad.’ After that, the individual is never heard from again. When the family tries to file a missing-person report, the police won’t take it, and no one admits to having custody of the person.” Some of the disappeared pass directly to U.S. custody and reappear months or years later at Guantánamo or Bagram air base. Others remain captives of Pakistan’s multiple intelligence agencies or are shipped to places like Uzbekistan, whose torture policies are well known. Others simply vanish, their fate revealed only by clerical errors, or when they turn up dead.
Most of the arrests and detentions take place under the auspices of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which the CIA helped expand in the 1980s largely in order to wage a proxy war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan (where the ISI continues to wield considerable influence). The agency has evolved into a powerful institution with its own agendas and alliances—it has long pursued ethnic separatists in the Baluchistan region, for instance, where the Human Rights Commission estimates that at least 600 individuals have disappeared—and the result is that the CIA itself often has little knowledge of the provenance or purpose of a given arrest.
Such may be the case with Siddiqui. To my knowledge, the only current or former U.S. official to comment publicly on the significance of her capture was John Kiriakou, a retired CIA officer who gained notoriety in 2007 when he told ABC News that the CIA waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda lieutenant, produced life-saving intelligence in less than a minute. Although Justice Department memos later revealed that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times, Kiriakou’s comments did much to foster acceptance of the practice among the American public—and his description of Siddiqui seemed calibrated to achieve a similar effect. In 2008 he told ABC News, which had hired him as a consultant after his waterboarding interview, “I don’t think we’ve captured anybody as important and as well connected as she since 2003. We knew that she had been planning, or at least involved in the planning of, a wide variety of different operations.” When I called Kiriakou to ask him about those operations, though, he said the extent of his knowledge was that Siddiqui’s name “had popped up an awful lot” while he was in Pakistan searching for Zubaydah in 2002, and that “the FBI talked about her so often that I thought she must be a big fish.” After he left Pakistan, he forgot all about Siddiqui until ABC called for an interview. “I actually had to Google as to remember who she was,” he said.
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