Two days after the 9/11 attacks, during a meeting of Bush’s closest advisers, Cofer Black declared the country’s enemies must be left with ‘flies walking across their eyeballs’. It was an image of death so striking that Black became known among the President’s inner circle as ‘the flies on the eyeballs guy’. Unlike its allies – the UK, France, Spain and Israel – the US had little experience of serious terrorist attacks on its own territory, nor any understanding of the need for a patient response. Bush was impressed by Black. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, could see that the President wanted to kill somebody. The problem, as successive attorneys general had warned one president after another, was that they did not enjoy unfettered powers of life and death over the nation’s enemies. The CIA had been banned from carrying out assassinations since 1976.
The President turned to his Department of Defense and found that it had no cogent, off-the-shelf plan for responding to an attack of this nature on the United States. The CIA, on the other hand, did have something in its arsenal: it had the rendition program.
Since 1987, the CIA had been quietly apprehending terrorists and ‘rendering’ them to the US for prosecution, without any regard for lawful extradition processes. In 1995, President Bill Clinton – apparently with the full encouragement of his vice-president, Al Gore – agreed that a number of terrorists could be taken to a third country, including countries known to use torture, a process that would come to be known as extraordinary rendition.
Mike Scheuer, the CIA officer who started that programme, faced few objections from Clinton’s national security advisers when he began taking prisoners to Egypt, where they could be interrogated under torture. ‘They just didn’t want to know what we were doing,’ he says.