By John Goetz and Britta Sandberg
Only a smattering of clouds dotted the sky over Szymany on March 7, 2003, and visibility was good. A light breeze blew from the southeast as a plane approached the small military airfield in northeastern Poland, and the temperature outside was 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit). At around 4:00 p.m., the Gulfstream N379P -- known among investigators as the "torture taxi" -- touched down on the landing strip.
On board was the most important prisoner the US had been able to produce in the war on terror: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, also known as "the brains" behind al-Qaida. This was the man who had presented Osama bin Laden with plans to attack the US with commercial jets. He personally selected the pilots and supervised preparations for the attacks. Eighteen months later, on March 1, 2003, Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan by US Special Forces and brought to Afghanistan two days later. Now the CIA was flying him to a remote area in Poland's Masuria region. The prisoner slept during the flight from Kabul to Szymany, for the first time in days, as he later recounted:
Jerry M., age 56 at the time, probably sat at the controls of the plane chartered by the CIA. The trained airplane and helicopter pilot had been hired by Aero Contractors, a company that transferred prisoners around the world for US intelligence agencies. According to documents from Eurocontrol, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, Jerry M. had taken off from Kabul at 8:51 a.m. that morning. Only hours after landing in Poland, at 7:16 p.m., he took off again, headed for Washington.
A large number of Polish and American intelligence operatives have since gone on record that the CIA maintained a prison in northeastern Poland. Independent of these sources, Polish government officials from the Justice and Defense Ministry have also reported that the Americans had a secret base near Szymany airport. And so began on March 7, 2003 one of the darkest chapters of recent American -- and European -- history.
Obama Under Pressure
It was apparently here, just under an hour's drive from Szymany airport, that Sheikh Mohammed was tortured, exactly 183 times with waterboarding -- an interrogation technique that simulates the sensation of drowning -- in March, 2003 alone. That averages out to eight times a day. And all of this happened right here in Europe.
Over six years later, these acts of torture are putting the new US president, Barack Obama, under intense pressure. On the one hand, he released four memos in which his predecessor George W. Bush had legalized such interrogation methods. On the other hand, he decided not to prosecute the torturers. And he initially neglected to launch investigations into these "special interrogation methods."
It is the decision that has earned Obama the harshest criticism during the first 100 days of his presidency. Democrats from the Senate and the House of Representatives announced last week that they would form a truth commission, essentially putting them at odds with their own president. Obama quickly realized that he had apparently underestimated the volatile nature of the issue. So he had US Attorney General Eric Holder announce that no one stood above the law. Holder promised that an investigation would be conducted to find out who in the White House and the Justice Department had declared these methods legal.
What the CIA did back then to prisoners in the Polish military airbase of Stare Kiejkuty, north of Szymany, had been authorized by the president. According to witnesses, Stare Kiejkuty housed a secret CIA prison for "high value detainees" -- for the most prominent prisoners of the war on terror.
There is now no doubt that the Gulfstream N379P landed at least five times at Szymany between February and July, 2003. Flight routes were manipulated and falsified for this purpose and, with the knowledge of the Polish government, the European aviation safety agency Eurocontrol was deliberately deceived.
If we are to believe the statements of Sheikh Mohammed, a large number of those present at the small airfield wore ski masks. This is what he told a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross that questioned him in the US military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba in late 2006:
"On arrival the transfer from the airport to the next place of detention took about one hour. I was transported sitting on the floor of a vehicle. I could see at one point that there was snow on the ground. Everybody was wearing black, with masks and army boots, like Planet-X people."
Just under an hour's drive corresponds roughly to the distance from Szymany to the Stare Kiejkuty military base, known as a training camp for Polish intelligence agents. The route there passes for two kilometers through a fenced-off military zone, past dense pine forests, then heads northeast for 20 minutes, and finally leads over an unpaved road alongside a lake. The entrance to the base is at the end of this road.
'I Was Never Threatened with Death'
Sheikh Mohammed said that they cut the clothes from his body, photographed him naked and threw him in a three-by-four-meter (10 x 13 ft) cell with wooden walls. That was when the hardest phase of the interrogating began, he claims. According to Sheikh Mohammed, one of his interrogators told him that they had received the green light from Washington to give him a "hard time":
"They never used the word 'torture' and never referred to 'physical pressure,' only to 'a hard time.' I was never threatened with death, in fact I was told that they would not allow me to die, but that I would be brought to the 'verge of death and back again.'"
He says he was questioned roughly eight hours a day. He spent the first month naked and standing, with his hands chained to the ceiling of the cell, even at night. They led them into another room for questioning, he says. That's where the bed stood that he says he was strapped to for waterboarding. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks told members of the Red Cross that he eventually realized where he was being held:
"I think the country was Poland. I think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought to me without the label removed. It had e-mail address ending in '.pl'. The central-heating system was an old-style one that I would expect only to see in countries of the former communist system."
Thereafter, the al-Qaida operative described how he was strapped to a special bed and submitted to waterboarding:
"Cold water from a bottle that had been kept in a fridge was then poured onto the cloth by one of the guards so that I could not breathe. This obviously could only be done for one or two minutes at a time. The cloth was then removed and the bed was put into a vertical position. The whole process was then repeated during about one hour. Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the waterboarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breathe."
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