WASHINGTON — A white, unmarked Boeing 737 landed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before dawn on a CIA mission so secretive many in the nation's war on terrorism were kept in the dark.
Four of the nation's most highly valued terrorist prisoners were aboard.
They arrived at Guantanamo on Sept. 24, 2003, years earlier than the U.S. has ever disclosed. Then, months later, they were just as quietly whisked away before the Supreme Court could give them access to lawyers.
The transfer allowed the U.S. to interrogate the detainees in CIA "black sites" for two more years without allowing them to speak with attorneys or human rights observers or challenge their detention in U.S. courts. Had they remained at the Guantanamo Bay prison for just three more months, they would have been afforded those rights.
"This was all just a shell game to hide detainees from the courts," said Jonathan Hafetz, a Seton Hall University law professor who has represented several detainees.
Removing them from Guantanamo Bay underscores how worried President George W. Bush's administration was that the Supreme Court might lift the veil of secrecy on the detention program. It also shows how insistent the administration was that terrorists must be held outside the U.S. court system.
Years later, the program's legacy continues to complicate President Obama's efforts to prosecute the terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The arrival and speedy departure from Guantanamo were pieced together by The Associated Press using flight records and interviews with current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the CIA's detention program.
The American Civil Liberties Union renewed its call for a broad criminal investigation into the detention program Friday.
"Secret detention constitutes a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and the officials who authorized the CIA's secret prisons and torture program should be held accountable," Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said.
At least four admitted al-Qaida operatives, some of the CIA's biggest captures to date, were on the plane to Guantanamo: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.
Binalshibh and al-Hawsawi helped plan the 9/11 attacks. Al-Nashiri was the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Zubaydah was an al-Qaida travel facilitator. They had spent months overseas enduring some of the harshest interrogation tactics in U.S. history.
By late summer 2003, the CIA believed the men had revealed their best secrets. The agency needed somewhere to hold them, but no longer needed to conduct prolonged interrogations.