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The arithmetic: Were thousands from Bush's gulags disappeared?

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Over the past year, we've been tracking the story of Bush's gulags, and asking ourselves how many prisoners He was keeping there. Our answer (given in early 2005 on the basis of airplane tail numbers, long before WaPo "broke" the story) was 8,500. Later in 2005, the Times estimated 14,000. And recently, CD reported (via Sidney Blumenthal) Colonel Wilkerson's estimate of 35,000.

But we really didn't question too closely what was happening inside the the gulags--yet another instance of not being cynical enough, no matter how hard we try. Now, in the UK's New Statesman, Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane: the inside story of the CIA's secret rendition programme, uses similar methodology and does some arithmetic himself:

More than 7,000 prisoners have been captured in America's war on terror. [Agreeing with our original estimate, interestingly.] Just 700 ended up in Guantanamo Bay. Between extraordinary rendition to foreign jails and disappearance into the CIA's "black sites", what happened to the rest?

Excellent question! Here's the arithmetic you can do from public sources:

On 6 September, George W Bush finally confirmed the existence of secret CIA jails such as the one that held Bashmilah. He added something chilling - a declaration that there were now "no terrorists in the CIA programme", that the many prisoners held with Bashmilah were all gone. It was a statement that hinted at something very dark - that the United States has "disappeared" hundreds of prisoners to an uncertain fate.

Let's examine the arithmetic of this systematic disappearance. In the first years after the attacks of 11 September, thousands of Taliban or suspected terrorist suspects were captured. Just in Afghanistan, the US admitted processing more than 6,000 prisoners. Pakistan has said it handed over around 500 captives to the US; Iran said it sent 1,000 across the border to Afghanistan. Of all these, some were released and just over 700 ended up in Guantanamo, Cuba. But the simple act of subtraction shows that thousands are missing. More than five years after 9/11, where are they all? We know that many were rendered to foreign jails, both by the CIA and directly by the US military. But how many precisely? The answer is still classified. No audit of the fate of all these souls has ever been published.

So, why wouldn't the administration release such an audit?

Despite admitting, in general, that the CIA carries out renditions, the US has yet to own up to a single specific case of transferring a prisoner to foreign custody.

The explanation for the secrecy is one that most of the CIA officers involved in rendition will quite freely admit - a transfer to places such as Egypt or Uzbekistan (a country known for boiling prisoners alive) will inevitably involve torture. And knowingly sending a prisoner to face torture is, under both US and international law, an illegal act. Revealing the fate of the missing prisoners may be just too politically embarrassing.

Not to mention a war crime, for which Bush could be indicted, or impeached.

We know of at least one prisoner who has been disappeared:

One of those "disappeared", for example, is the former al- Qaeda camp commander Ibn-al Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured in late 2001. Al-Libi was first interrogated by the FBI but, according to those involved, he was then snatched by the CIA and rendered to Cairo. It was while he was under Egyptian interrogation that al-Libi provided an important piece of "testimony": that Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship with al-Qaeda. It was an erroneous claim, since formally withdrawn by the CIA, but was used as part of the justification for the war in Iraq. Al-Libi's anonymous testimony was cited by Colin Powell before the United Nations. But no one mentioned where the intelligence came from.

After his interrogation in Egypt, al-Libi was sent back to US custody in Afghanistan. But now he has disappeared.

Other key prisoners are missing too - others whose stories would shock the public conscience. The US, for example, has never acknowledged what it did with German citizen Mohammed Haydar Zammar. He was captured in December 2001, one of the first in custody who was connected to the Hamburg cell that carried out the 9/11 attacks. And, again, instead of being held in US hands, he was rendered in secret to Damascus. He has never been brought to a public trial or had any chance to reveal how he was treated.

And the interesting thing about the MCA is that it "legalizes" this policy of disappearance:

Last month, Bush signed into law his new Military Commissions Act, which provides for the trial at Guantanamo of top al-Qaeda leaders. The act grants fewer rights to defendants than the Nazis got at Nuremberg. And yet, in this strange world, the rights now granted to men such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who devised the 9/11 attack and who will now be brought to trial, still rank far higher than the rights of the small fry, those much less significant players behind bars in foreign jails. In this new justice, the big terrorists are granted privileges, and the other missing prisoners, subtracted from the public record, are disappeared off the face of the earth. That's the mathematics of torture.

I can only come up with two possibilities, when I ask myself what's happened to the thousands of prisoners we know nothing about.

1. They could still be in the gulags. But where? 7,0000 (or 8,500, or 14,000, or 35,000) is a lot of people to keep permanently on ice.

2. Bush could have taken a cue from some of the practices of the Argentinian and Chilean secret services in the dirty wars of the 1970s--whose brutal and authoritarian practices the administration has been so anxious to emulate in so many ways.

Researchers have the tail numbers of many of the planes used for renditions.

It would be interesting to know if any of these planes had cargo doors that could be opened over the ocean.

Maybe some enterprising reporter could look into this? Or possibly a Congressional committee?

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