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 United States' most highly valued terrorist prisoners were aboard.
They arrived at Guantanamo from Morocco on Sept. 24, 2003, years earlier than the United States 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 United States 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.
Removing them from Guantanamo 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 Bush administration was that terror suspects must be held outside the U.S. court system.
Years later, the program's legacy continues to complicate President Barack Obama's efforts to prosecute those charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
At least four admitted al-Qaida operatives, some of the CIA's biggest captures, were on the plane to Guantanamo: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.
Binalshibh and al-Hawsawi helped plan the Sept. 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.
Not long after they arrived, things began unraveling.
In November 2003, over the administration's objections, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether Guantanamo detainees could sue in U.S. courts.
In March 2004, as the legal documents piled up at the Supreme Court, the court announced oral arguments would be held in April. After that, a ruling could come at any time, and everyone at the island prison — secretly or not — would be covered.
On March 27, just as the sun was setting on Guantanamo, a Gulfstream IV jet left Cuba. The plane landed in Rabat, Morocco, the next morning. By the time the Supreme Court ruled June 28 that detainees should have access to U.S. courts, the CIA had once again scattered Zubaydah, al-Nashiri and the others throughout the black sites.
Two years later, after the Washington Post revealed the existence of the program, Bush emptied the prison network. Fourteen men, including the four who had been at Guantanamo Bay years earlier, were moved there. They have been there ever since.