Dispatches: How we broke the US renditions story

One of the reasons that it’s so difficult to investigate the USA’s network of secret flights and prisons for those it suspects of terrorism is that it’s spread out over such a colossal area. It’s enormously hard in terms of time and resources. We covered 20,000 miles – it was bloody exhausting.

I worked with reporter Stephen Grey, who wrote the book Ghost Planes and is the world expert on these things. But we were all starting cold on the story of what was happening in the Horn of Africa right now.

We relied on a number of things falling into place – on people who were involved in planning and executing rendition operations becoming disillusioned, like the now-retired head of CIA operations in Europe, Tyler Drumheller.

This is not a story people want to be told. It’s not difficult to speak to victims, but it was enormously difficult to get any kind of access to people who had been involved on the official side, such as Kenyan anti-terrorist officers.

You need to employ different approaches to different people. Abu Omar, an Egyptian who was tortured for more than a year, was very difficult to persuade. We had to persuade him that this film would highlight the situation for people in detention, go some way to putting a spotlight on the USA’s tactics in the Middle East and go some way to getting them out. That’s a hard sell, because there’s a limit to how much of a difference a documentary can make.

I did meet the Kenyan anti-terrorist police – when they arrested me as a terrorist suspect. We had a pretty good emergency plan, which we put into effect. Stephen got our footage out of the country immediately and then threw everything into getting me out. I was only detained for two days. The team comes first, but we didn’t want to lose the footage. They would definitely have confiscated it – we wouldn’t have had a film.

It’s a very difficult story to tell, because there are no pictures of these secret prisoners, no footage exists and often you can’t take pictures of the people you are speaking to. We were quite concerned there was no film there.

One day in Nairobi, we went to meet the family of a young man who had been ‘rendered”. The family mentioned a woman in Tanzania who had telephoned and said she had been imprisoned with him. It was a bit of a long shot, but we met this 25-year-old pregnant woman and suddenly the whole story came alive when we spoke to her.

She had first-hand experience of every step of the narrative we were trying to tell – the arrest, the rendition and crucially for us, interrogation by American agents in Ethiopia. So we were suddenly able to see this story fit into the grander jigsaw of the so-called war on terror.

We also had this very powerful visual of a woman living in this tiny mud hut who got sucked into America’s campaign against Al Qaeda. At that point, there was still a long way to go, but I thought: ‘OK, we have a film.”

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