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Not Normal: Invisible Detainees and Compliant Restraint

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It's not at all my favourite type of book or film, but those who like the espionage genre (Fleming, Le Carré, Deighton, Clancy et al) might quite enjoy reading passages like this:

We got a call from the Border Guard headquarters in Warsaw informing us that a plane was going to land at Szymany Airport and we should be ready to accept them, but the Border Guard would conduct the passport control and we should not inform customs ... It was not normal. The airport was closed that day as it was snowing and we wanted to re-route the plane due to the de-icing costs, but the Border Guards refused and said all costs would be paid by the air company ... It was strange because the cost for the landing was much higher than the normal fee ... Staff at the airport had to be as small as possible. No one should leave the building, but there would be two people in the control tower. After the plane landed, Border Guards drove out to meet it; they weren't ordinary guards, but officials. They didn't even get on the plane. When they drove away, two mini-buses from Stare Kiejkuty approached the plane (I knew that from the licence plates). Stare Kiejkuty was a top secret base. After some time they drove away and the aircraft departed ... The next day a man who spoke Polish came and paid us in cash. This is not normal.

Classic espionage literature-type stuff, no? That "not normal" might almost define the entire espionage genre. Mysterious events followed by daring exploits carried out by fearless agents in extraordinary circumstances. Except ... this isn't from a book.

The quote is from a woman called Mariola Przewłocka, the former manager of an airport in northern Poland. She's describing highly unusual - but all-too-real - goings-on during one day in December 2002 at the Szcsytno-Szymany International Airport (despite its name, a small former military airport). From evidence later pieced together by investigative journalists and human rights bodies, it's become (fairly) clear that this "strange" occurrence at a freezing cold regional airport in an out of the way place in eastern Europe was a CIA rendition operation, involving an "off the radar" flight bringing a detainee (or detainees) to a secret "black site" detention centre at the nearby Stare Kiejkuty military base.

Later there was more mystery. It was claimed that the airport's log of flights for this period had gone missing. There were attempts to maintain a story about how the airport's computers had been struck by lightning and that the hard disks had been wiped. However, flight records exist in many forms and various investigations have pinpointed known CIA planes arriving at Szymany during 2002-3. Interlocking details suggest that many - possibly all - of the CIA's so-called "high value" detainees were at one time or another held at a Polish black site detention centre, probably being brought into the country during numerous "not normal" incidents like the one described by Ms Przewtocka.

Anyway, as the investigation into the Polish connection in the murky rendition affair grinds on (see the new Amnesty report on this), it's worth remembering where the CIA planes set off to after they left behind the ice-bound runway at Szymany. Yes, after a stop or two along the way (very likely to deposit other detainees to other secret locations), they'd touch down on the hot tarmac of the military airport at Guantánamo in Cuba. Mission accomplished.

As long ago as 2006 President Bush acknowledged (after lengthy rumours) that the US had transported to Guantánamo 14 "high value" detainees previously held by the CIA in a secret location. Now, seven years later, it's noticeable that Department of Defense's updates on the hunger strike at Guantánamo systematically exclude the high value detainees. For example, as of today, with 104 detainees officially recognised as being on hunger strike (of these 43 are being force-fed and four are hospitalised), we have to remember that this is out of 151 detainees, not the full quota of 166 (the camp authorities just don't mention 15 high value detainees). Why are they doing this? It's not clear. Full-time Guantánamo watchers like the journalist Carol Rosenberg seem perplexed by it. In the overall context it's both faintly sinister - just like claiming that force-fed detainees "walk very compliantly to the restraint chair" when about to be force fed - and part of a pattern of treating these "ghost detainees" as if they don't really exist.

Yes, spy fiction fans would probably find this sort of thing satisfyingly strange. There's plenty more - faked flight info, videos of interrogations/torture sessions later wiped, etc, etc. But none of this not normal behaviour is from the pages of an airport blockbuster (though it certainly involves airports).

Invisible detainees and compliant restraint. Welcome to the non-fictional world of the USA's continuing battle against the bad guys...

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