Inside the CIA's Secret Prisons Program

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In December of 2001, U.S. agents arranged to have a German citizen flown to a Syrian jail called the Palestine Branch, renowned for its use of torture, and later offered to pass written questions to Syrian interrogators to pose to the prisoner, according to a secret German intelligence report shown to TIME on Wednesday. The report is described in the new book Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program by British investigative journalist Stephen Grey. The complex arrangement was part of the CIA's sprawling practice of extraordinary renditions, the secret transfer of terror suspects to hidden prisons across the world — which has involved the aid of numerous foreign governments and the knowledge of key Western European allies, according to the book, which was shown to TIME by the author. After U.S. officials long refused to confirm the CIA's secret detention of terror suspects abroad, President Bush last month admitted that terror suspects had been transferred abroad to secret CIA facilities, but U.S. officials continue to deny that such prisoners have been tortured, saying that foreign governments assured them that they would be treated fairly.

The prisoner flown to Syria in December 2001 was no ordinary criminal: 42-year-old Mohammad Haydr Zammar, a businessman who had immigrated to Germany and was living in Hamburg, was wanted by U.S. officials on suspicion of helping to recruit some of the 9/11 hijackers, as part of Al Qaeda's Hamburg cell. According to the report, after a U.S. request Zammar was arrested in Morocco by local police. He was questioned in Morocco by CIA officials and then flown to Damascus; the intelligence report does not specify which aircraft transferred him.

The cooperation between an unlikely coalition of intelligence agencies did not end there. The intelligence report gives a rare glimpse into the favors exchanged between governments during the CIA renditions. One day after Germany learned that the Syrians were holding Zammar, the CIA offered the German foreign-intelligence agency BND the chance to put written questions to their prisoner. The intelligence report doesn't make clear whether CIA interrogators had direct physical access to Zammar. In June 2002, Syrian officials offered German interrogators access to Zammar in prison, according to the 263-page report by the BND, marked "Geheim" (Secret). That same day, the BND chief asked Germany's federal prosecutors to drop their charges against Syrian intelligence agents who had been arrested in Germany for allegedly collecting information on Syrian dissidents.

The German intelligence report cites another deal, an "urgent request [by the United States] to avert pressure from the EU side [on Morocco] because of human-rights abuses in connection with [Zammar's]arrest, because Morocco was a valuable partner in the fight against terrorism." Grey, who had the report translated, says he obtained the classified report from a German investigator, who remains anonymous. The German government has acknowledged that they dropped the charges against the Syrian intelligence officers because of their cooperation in anti-terrorism, but they deny that the decision was specifically linked to the Zammar case.

With deep political mistrust between Syria and the United States, the two countries are hardly ready-made partners in the war on terrorism. Yet by the end of 2002, Zammar was one of at least four prisoners jailed in the Palestine Branch cells in Damascus who had landed there as part of the CIA renditions, according to the book, which is being published by St. Martin's Press. It is widely believed that Zammar, who has never been charged with anything, is still being held without trial in Syria at an unknown location. He was last heard from in 2005, when he sent a letter from Syria to his family in Germany through officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In interviews, three former prisoners jailed in the Damascus facility told Grey that they were regularly beaten by Syrian interrogators, and that they had been held in cells barely longer and wider than coffins. While in solitary confinement, they say they communicated with each other in snatched conversations through the walls, and sensed the presence of other prisoners also through their screams during torture sessions. One former prisoner told Grey that he had spoken through the walls with a jailed teenager, who told the man he had been transferred from Pakistan to Syria by U.S.agents. The adult prisoner recalled the teenager as being 15 or 16 years old. A Syrian government spokesman told Grey in Damascus last June that "a number of prisoners had been sent to them," but denied that any were tortured, and declined to discuss individual cases.

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