As for extraordinary renditions, the first small glimpse into that policy came just a month after 9/11. At the time, the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran was reporting from Pakistan and saw a reference in a local paper to an al Qaeda suspect who had been flown away in the middle of the night by the US. Chandrasekaran ran the plane’s tail number, which had been published, through an Federal Aviation Administration database and quickly suspected that a CIA front was involved. “I tried finding the number for the company listed and couldn’t get anything,” Chandrasekaran recalls. “I thought, ‘Why the hell would they fly in the middle of the night?’ That was it. It was all I had time to do back then.”
The following spring, in early 2002, Chandrasekaran was stationed in Indonesia and saw a squib in a local paper about an Arab handed over to foreigners at a military air base. “I went to the guy’s neighborhood, talked to Indonesia intel sources, and one opened up to me,” he remembers. Written with Peter Finn, the resulting front-page story — “US Behind Secret Transfer of Terror Suspects” — revealed how a prisoner who, without a court hearing or a lawyer, “was hustled aboard an unmarked, US-registered Gulfstream V jet parked at a military airport in Jakarta and flown to Egypt.”
“After September 11, these sorts of movements have been occurring all the time,” one US diplomat told the Post. “It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can’t do on US soil.”
Coming just six months after 9/11, Chandrasekaran says the article “got very little interest. A year, two years later, I started getting calls saying, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And that includes my own paper.”
Bob Drogin, an intelligence reporter at the Los Angeles Times, remembers trying to follow these stories and making “an utterly unsuccessful effort to crack into the rendition business. It’s reporters abroad who’ve done the best job on this stuff. It’s just the nature of where the story is.”
Indeed, by the summer of 2004, soon after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced, European journalists from outlets like The Financial Times, the London Independent, The Ottawa Citizen, and Calla Fakta (Cold Facts), a Swedish TV program, were driving the coverage of renditions. A British reporter named Stephen Grey began to track CIA flights by their tail numbers. Grey eventually detailed some 300 flights of a single jet to forty-nine different destinations in the British publication, New Statesman. Grey, a freelancer who in the past year had written about renditions for The New York Times, says that before publishing his piece he tried to get US networks interested. One show was particularly interested, but eventually the idea fell through. “They said, ‘Can’t you find somebody who’s innocent; we’d much prefer that,’” says Grey, who won’t name the show he was referring to. “The nub of the story wasn’t innocence; it was that people were sent to places where they were likely tortured.” (A number of American outlets did eventually contribute pieces of the puzzle, including regional dailies like The Oregonian, The Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune.)
When Priest’s story on the secret prisons was splashed across the Post’s front page, it resulted in an enormous amount of attention, consternation, and, of course, a backlash. Although the Post had declined to name the Eastern European countries in which some of the prisons were located — a decision prompted by “the request of senior US officials [who] argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation” — the reaction against the Post by the administration and Congress was swift and overwhelming.
Joining others in calling for a leak probe, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist declared himself “not concerned about what goes on” at the prisons but very concerned about the leak. The CIA also requested that the Justice Department start an investigation, and the House Intelligence Committee started its own.
“The House and Senate majority leaders held a joint news conference calling for a bicameral investigation,” says Priest. “That was the weirdest day.” The article, as Priest puts it, was “my attempt to go back again, with deeper sourcing and a better understanding of the discrete elements and motives behind all this.” As to why this particular piece, of all the stories she has written on the detention system, got so much attention, Priest suspects that “it was the fact that the prisons were in Europe and that those were democracies. They’re like us.”