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Report pulls back veil on CIA's rendition program

As many as 54 nations aided the United States in rendition and detention operations that swept up more than 130 people as part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s global counterterrorism efforts, according to a report released Tuesday by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a human rights advocacy group.

The report, titled “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition,” is the most complete account yet of the covert and extra-legal detention of suspects at undisclosed locations, or “black sites,” in the post-9/11 era. Relying on information provided by human rights groups, public records and court cases, the report details the harsh treatment some suspects faced.

“The United States prides itself on being a leader in the field of human rights, and now we have courts around the world saying that the United States is a torturer,” Amrit Singh, who authored the report, told NBC News. “Those kinds of findings really undermine the United States’ ability to advocate for human rights around the world.”

Public debate over the use of torture as a counterterrorism tactic was reignited recently with the release of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty." Critics of the film say it incorrectly portrays the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics in the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, but filmmakers say the torture scenes depict just one part of the decade-long hunt for the terrorist mastermind.

The use of renditions appears to have reached its apogee after the September 11 attacks, when President Bush expanded the program to include indefinite periods of detention in third-party countries, according to the report. While the Obama administration has taken measures to impose more oversight on the process, renditions appear to continue, according to the report.

President Obama issued an executive order 2009 that directed that the CIA close its secret detention facilities in order to “promote the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals” held by the United States. But the order specified that the closures did not apply to facilities used to hold terror suspects “on a short-term, transitory basis.” A task force established by the order produced recommendations in 2009 that would allow rendition to continue, but with measures to prevent “the transfer of individuals to face torture.”

Due to continued secrecy over the CIA’s extraction and detention of suspects, estimates on the total number of detainees have been imprecise.  The catalog of 136 people identified in the new report as detained or transferred by the CIA is the largest such list to be compiled to date. The report notes that the total number of people subject to rendition, detention, or interrogation will not be known until the countries involved release that information.

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Countries assisting the United States included Afghanistan, Germany, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Kingdom. Some of the countries hosted facilities used by the CIA on their soil, according to the report, while others provided intelligence or aided in the capture, transport, or detention of individuals.

“The 54 governments basically enabled these operations,” Singh said. “Without the participation of these governments, the programs would not have been possible.”

The practice may have long-term ramifications for the United States, as foreign governments react to emerging information about the secretive practice, Singh said. On February 1, for example, an Italian court sentenced a former CIA chief and two other American officials in absentia to prison sentences for the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in 2003.

The report also includes details on the brutal conditions faced by some suspects, including Maher Arar, a Canadian and Syrian citizen. Arar was held in Jordan and Syria between 2002 and 2003 after being detained at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on information provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In Syria, he was imprisoned in a cell three feet wide, threatened with electric shocks, and beaten with cables, according to the report.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Singh also cited the case of Khalid El-Masri, 49, who said he had been detained by the CIA in Afghanistan after being extradited from Macedonia. His case is unique, Singh said, because his claims of mistreatment have been affirmed by a court. While a 2006 lawsuit El-Masri brought in federal court against the U.S. government was dismissed, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in December that El-Masri’s rights had been violated.

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A 6,000-page review of CIA detention practices was approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee in December. Initiated in 2009 by a 14-1 vote of the committee, the report is a “comprehensive review” of the detention and interrogation of CIA prisoners, committee chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. The report, which remains classified, “uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight,” Feinstein said.

The committee is expected to vote again in February on whether or not to declassify portions of the report following comment from the White House and CIA.

Among those urging for the declassification of the report is Senator John McCain, who in December said it is his hope that "all Americans can see the record for themselves, which I believe will finally close this painful chapter for our country. ... Our enemies may act without conscience, but we do not.”