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Tracking the ‘Torture Taxi’

Posted on Sep 19, 2006
Torture Taxi
Courtesy MHP Books

The cover of the just-released book “Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA?s Rendition Flights”

By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

The authors of the new book “Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA?s Rendition Flights” tell Truthdig guest interviewer Onnesha Roychoudhuri how they pieced together the first comprehensive look at the largest covert CIA operation since the Cold War—a program run not only by shadowy government contractors in the darkest corners of Afghanistan, but also by unassuming America family lawyers in places like Dedham, Mass.

When U.S. civilian airplanes were spotted in late 2002 taking trips to and from Andrews Air Force Base, and making stops in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, journalists and plane-spotters wondered what was going on. It soon became clear that these planes were part of the largest covert operation since the Cold War era. Called extraordinary rendition, the practice involves CIA officials or contractors kidnapping people and sending them to secret prisons around the world where they are held and often tortured, either at the hands of the host-country?s government or by CIA personnel themselves.

On Sept. 6, after a long period of official no-comments, President Bush acknowledged the program?s existence. But the extent of its operations has yet to be publicly disclosed. 

How extensive is it? Trevor Paglen, an expert in clandestine military installations, and A.C. Thompson, an award-winning journalist for S.F. Weekly, spent months tracking the CIA flights and the businesses behind them. What they found was a startlingly broad network of planes (including the Gulfstream jet belonging to Boston Red Sox co-owner Phillip Morse), shell companies, and secret prisons around the world. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation of their new book “Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA?s Rendition Flights” is the collusion of everyday Americans in this massive CIA program. From family lawyers who bolster the shell companies, to an entire town in Smithfield, N.C., that hosts CIA planes and pilots, “Torture Taxi” is the story of the broad reach of extraordinary rendition, and, as Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, the banality of evil.

Trevor and A.C. joined me by phone to explain how they managed to follow a paper trail that led to some of the most critical unknowns about the extraordinary rendition program. 


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Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?

Trevor Paglen: I research military secrecy at Berkeley and there is a community there trying to figure out what military programs are. At some point, this hobbyist community became aware that there were these civilian planes flying around, acting as if they were working in military black programs. These people started tracking the planes and repeatedly seeing them in places like Libya and Guantanamo Bay. It became pretty clear that this was a CIA thing and that these were planes that were involved in the extraordinary rendition program.

Roychoudhuri: When did the pieces start to come together?

Paglen: Late last year, there was a big uproar about secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Dana Priest at the Washington Post broke the story and Human Rights Watch put out a press release. At that moment the pieces started making sense and we could start explaining what was going on. By that time I had collected a number of files on this just as a curiosity. I brought them over to A.C.?s job, where he has access to some tools to do investigative journalism.

A.C. Thompson:  Trevor had this aviation and military expertise and all this information when he came to my office. I?ve been doing corporate research for years and when we started looking at these possible CIA front companies associated with the planes, it immediately became very apparent that we were looking at phony companies.

Roychoudhuri: How did you track the extraordinary rendition program?

Thompson: We wanted to gather up as much information as we could to create this mosaic of evidence to show the broad picture of extraordinary rendition. We went from Smithfield, N.C., to Gardez, Afghanistan, to piece it together. This is something that people have only really had snapshots of thus far. We reverse-engineered the program. We used the paper trails and evidence left behind, from FAA flight logs to the testimony of former prisoners in Afghanistan to piece it all together.

Paglen: We conceived of the book as a travel diary. We showed up at the addresses on this paper trail and followed the leads. The point was to find the story behind the address. Then we would go to the places where those companies actually fly those airplanes and provide the pilots. Then, when we saw that the airplanes frequently landed in Afghanistan, we went there, too.

Roychoudhuri: You relied on data from amateur plane-spotters with data from all over the world. Can you explain how that works?

Paglen: There are many plane-spotting websites with data regarding the movements of these aircrafts along with pictures. The data can be very scattered and difficult to do much with. But some of these plane-spotters have developed advanced techniques to get information on aircraft movement. That became very helpful in piecing some of this together. If you are a plane-spotter and you are interested in the history of a particular aircraft, you know there are many documents publicly available: registration papers and airworthiness certificates from the FAA. You can also get flight data from the FAA. And in the cases that data has been blocked, people have figured out ways to get around those blocks. When the plane-spotter community and journalists came together, it became one of the few ways to see the outlines of this program.

Roychoudhuri: The fact that the CIA is using civilian planes actually makes it easier to track them.

Paglen: Civilian law around aviation is much looser than those governing military. Civilian planes can basically fly wherever they want in the world. The U.S. military needs special permission to fly over somebody else?s airspace. Using the civilian companies is a way to create mobility and avoid drawing attention.

Thompson: The CIA wants to exist in the civilian world. It wants to create these entities so that it can move without a lot of scrutiny. But in the civilian world, you have to interact with other parts of the government all the time. If you create a shell corporation that is going to supposedly own an airplane that will be used to transport people to dungeons around the world, you have to file incorporation papers with the state the company is based in. When you go and get these corporate papers, you can analyze things like the signatures on the documents.

Roychoudhuri: What did you find when you examined some of these documents?

Thompson: We found Colleen Bornt who was an exec at a company called Premier Executive Transport Services. Premier was the company that owned the plane that took Khaled el-Masri to the Salt Pit. When you go look at the paper documents that Colleen signed, you find that every one of her signatures looks completely different. That?s because each one was made by a different person. When we started looking for more traces of Colleen there was no home address, no phone number, nor any other proof that she?s existed at all.

That?s the same with all these companies. They don?t have real headquarters, staff or anything besides these paper documents they filed to incorporate and a handful of lawyers who helped set these companies up and serve as the registered agents for them. These are the people who receive summons and subpoenas for the companies.

Roychoudhuri: What are these lawyers?

Thompson: These lawyers are the only humans you can find who actually exist in these companies. We went to look to talk to people at Keeler and Tate, another shell company implicated in el-Masri?s abduction. Keeler and Tate were sued by el-Masri with the help of the ACLU. We went to the only address for Keeler and Tate—a law office in Reno, Nevada. We told the secretary ?One of the lawyers here is a registered agent and you have been named in a lawsuit alleging a connection to the CIA and extraordinary rendition, what do you think of that?? She didn?t seem at all surprised, but she threw us out pretty quickly.

Roychoudhuri: Who are these lawyers?

Thompson: The kind of people we?re talking about are Dean Plakias in Dedham, Mass., outside of Boston. He is not a high-profile guy. He?s a family lawyer with a small practice and how he ended up in this world is still a mystery. This is an American story, a neighborhood story. When we started looking at all the front companies the CIA had erected, we realized our neighbors were helping the CIA set up these structures. These are family lawyers in suburban Massachusetts and Reno, Nevada. People in our communities are doing dirty work for the CIA. This is not just people being snatched up from one faraway country and taken to a country that?s even farther away.

Next page: There?s nothing random about the CIA using this rural area in North Carolina. If you wanted to shut up a secret operation, this is where you would do it. It?s a God, guns and guts area.

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By Sarah Merlin, January 5, 2007 at 4:38 pm Link to this comment
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I’d like to echo the sentiments of those posting kudos for the authors of this book - it ought to be required reading for every high school in the land. What a meticulous piece of work. Thanks, Paglen and Thompson! This is what an informed citizenry is really all about!

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By Frank Sagevsal, January 3, 2007 at 7:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Perhaps this is a bit rash, but I think we should impeach President Bush, before he finishes destroying this country, rather than afterwards. I have lived thru 10 presidents and I must say this c*cksucker is the worst I’ve ever seen. I’ve never really worried about the ability of this nation to perserve until this man bollicked the works.

We’re bankrupt, our currency is worthless and the fool wants to start a war with Iran. We really must draw a line somewhere. I’m gonna have to say torture is wrong, even when you outsource it. I’m gonna have to say Alberto Gonzalez, George W.Bush and Donald Rumsfeld should all be prosecuted for war crimes - the short list I’m sure there are many others involved in this mad scheme and they should be brought to justice as well. An International Tribunal might be a good idea.

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By Lisen, November 14, 2006 at 4:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

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By Mike Munk, November 13, 2006 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Does Torture still have a Portland address?

                            By Michael Munk

Several years ago, in the midst of a flap over the local ownership of one of the aircraft used in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists, David Sarasohn complained on these pages that “Torture, it seems, has a Portland address.”

That address, suite 755 in the historic Pittock Block, is still the office of Bayard Foreign Marketing, LLC, according to the person who answers the company’s phone.  From 2004, when Bayard bought a Gulfstream jet from another CIA front in Massachusetts, until 2006 when the plane was transferred once again to new owners in Miami, the Portland company ‘s plane was the one used most often for those CIA renditions. Its address is also that of attorney Scott D. Caplan, the company’s agent, against whom I have filed a professional misconduct complaint with the Oregon State Bar.

I contend that Mr. Caplan has not been truthful about whether his client, “Leonard Thomas Bayard”—the company’s only officer—is a real person. While intensive national and local investigations found that “Bayard” does not exist, Mr. Caplan told a reporter for this newspaper who “pressed” that he “is positive Bayard does exist.” With that single exception, he has stayed mum, refusing even to say whether he has ever met his client.

My formal complaint is limited to questioning whether Mr. Caplan has been truthful under the Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, but I have a more much important concern. I believe the Bar should investigate the conduct of members who create a public perception that they are acting as enablers of kidnapping and torture—even when such conduct may be as an agent of the US government.

Mr. Caplan has created just such an perception. In addition to Mr. Sarasohn’s concern for his client’s impact on Portland’s reputation, the company’s role in the CIA’s renditions was denounced on the House floor by Rep. Earl Blumenauer. In comments endorsed by Rep. David Wu, Blumenauer declared that he is “horrified “by a program that sends people “to be tortured.” His horror was magnified, he said, because “a shadowy - perhaps illegal - dummy front company, Bayard Foreign Marketing LLC in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, was used to transport these people.”

The Portland case demonstrates that because attorneys are the only public faces of the “torture taxi” program they are the only persons who can be held accountable. And more important than their non-existent clients, they are probably contractually barred from revealing who they actually work for. Reasonable persons, however, may conclude their real client is the Central Intelligence Agency or, more probably, one of the dependant entities it has established to maintain secrecy and deniability.

I am aware of the difficulties faced by anyone making, investigating or adjudicating a complaint that the federal government may argue involves state secrets and claim the facts are privileged by national security. But I believe that Oregonians have a deep investment in the integrity and reputation of the Oregon bar. That is why I asked it to investigate whether the professional activities of its member Scott Caplan have contributed to an ugly stain on—not only the Bar’s—but also our nation’s honor.


Michael Munk is a retired political scientist. His “Portland Red Guide” is scheduled for Spring publication by PSU’s Ooligan Press

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By D. Carter, November 4, 2006 at 7:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Do you idiots,that support this rendition plan,not relize that one day it might be desenting americans taken to these torture centers.This is not at all what america is about.This is what you see from rogue communist countries.If our incompent idiot president decided he was going to be a dictator this same program would be used against americans that hit the streets in protest.Once this is allowed to become american policy it would be almost impossible to reverse.How can any true american support this administration.These insane neo-cons have taken over the future of our children and declared perpetual war and poverty on all americans.Do you really think anybody down here on bloger level would fit into their plans.Wake up!

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By Ridgeway, November 4, 2006 at 9:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Secure the vote! A public verifiable election results system is needed.

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By Ali Rasheed, October 27, 2006 at 10:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Impeach Clinton for a blowjob but let crooked-ass Bush and his administration do whatever they want?

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By Rodney Matthews, October 24, 2006 at 6:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The shame and embarrassment brought to this country by the Bush adminstration’s torture policy is enough to make me wonder how rational thinking Americans could have allowed this to happen to our country. The world now view our leaders as George Goulag Bush, Dick Pol Pot Cheney, Condolezza atilla the hun Rice, Alberto Ayalolla Gonzales, and Donald Ede Amin Rumsfeld. All this From a man who signed more death warrants during his reign as Governor of Texas than any other Governor in our nation. The most surprising thing of all is that the Republician Congress gave Bush the power to define torture. May God help us All. Please vote November 7 while we still have that right. Who knows what the Decider may do nexy?

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By Dave, October 24, 2006 at 7:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why does everyone think this is only a Bush administration thing?  Our country has been running secret/black ops programs, sanctioned killings and so on for at least the past 80 years!  I agree, Bush is not my favorite to put up as the leader of our nation, but get your heads out of the sand, the government has been doing what its doing for a long time, long before any of the modern presidents!  “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

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By Jack Norris, October 24, 2006 at 7:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

And do you think all these things just started with Bush? How naive you people are. Let’s all sit around, drink the magic Koolaid and give these terorists more rights! It’s only fair, right? You libs never cease to amaze me!

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By Hal, October 23, 2006 at 2:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It breaks my heart.  What has become of my country?  What has happened to our system of government that we are not aware of these atrocities and they are not debated?  Why are these guys still in office?  Why do none of the candidates for Congress officially state a position on this issue on their website?

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By Chris M, October 23, 2006 at 8:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Amazing…I wish I could support this whole thing. I have thought about it at length and came to the realization that I probably would be more supportive under a different president…An entirly different administration for that matter.The dark shadow that hangs over the possibility of a rigged election and the “pal” that these guys have given the U.S in the worlds eyes is going to take years to fix.That being said, these are really bad dudes that they are for the most part getting to..we hope.Just be on guard for the neighbor who suddenly pulls a “No show”...Then it is time to freak out!

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By The Neighbor, October 22, 2006 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kidnapping, Torture and Murder. Mr.Bush’s legacy.

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By George Arndt, October 20, 2006 at 11:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Isn’t this the kind of thing the Soviet Union Did? And, most of the people supporting this once fought against communism!

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By jaxbrie, October 15, 2006 at 6:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The US borrows nothing from repressive regimes. Remember who still trains a great many of them. Remember the “School of the Americas”?

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By EoS, October 6, 2006 at 9:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The real issue now is how to get the bulk of the American people to see whats happening on their behalf. The pernicious belief that only seriously quilty people are getting picked up clearly hampers are ability to see this as the evil it is.

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By felcity, October 6, 2006 at 1:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hitler, Pinochet, Saddam…tortured to make their enemies afraid to oppose them. One can assume that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld do not mind being included in that illustrious group, but what of other Americans, the aiders and abetters, does it bother them? 

That said, in adopting this depraved form of PR, are we frightening other people in other countries to dare not oppose us, or are we putting in concrete that we are a nation to be opposed at all costs.

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By Guitarsandmore, October 1, 2006 at 11:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Every corrupt, evil, dictatorship has its band of ruthless thugs to handle the dirty work behind the scenes.

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By Wayne Harris, September 29, 2006 at 7:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The day Americans decide that they don’t think torture is something we should do, than maybe we’ll see some pressure to change these things.”

A.C. Thompson has distilled, with depressing accuracy, the crux of the torture issue. The America I thought I knew no longer exists. Perhaps it never did.

These reporters should win a Pulitzer Prize.

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By Dan Noel, September 27, 2006 at 2:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great piece! As Amnesty International has stated, the Bush administration has borrowed pages from the playbook of repressive regime in its silly drive to disappear and torture people for no apparent reason other than to give us the illusion that they are serious in their “war against terror.”

This piece is striking in that it indicates how easy it is to turn ordinary people into disappearers and torturers.

It also illustrates the countless idiocies that the federal government has put into this rendition and torture program. They can’t even do that right…

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By Mrs. Robinson, September 20, 2006 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a great piece. I liked it so much I blogged it over at Orcinus—where one of my eagle-eyed commenters brought a small error to my attention. To wit: A.C. Thompson writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which is a much better paper than the SF Weekly.

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