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Tracking the ‘Torture Taxi’
Posted on Sep 19, 2006
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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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.
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