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Tracking the ‘Torture Taxi’

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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

(Page 2)

Roychoudhuri: When you have a false entity like Colleen Bornt signing for purchases of planes, is that breaking business laws?

Thompson: As far as I can tell, it?s 100% illegal under the business and professions codes in any state. I don?t think that it would be legal anywhere. I also don?t think that it?s legal in any state for a lawyer to set up a phony business for people who they know don?t exist. It?s also likely at odds with the ethics provisions of most state bar organizations for lawyers. Strictly speaking, I don?t think any of these things are legal.

Roychoudhuri: Where was the most interesting place you traveled?

Thompson: We went to Nevada, Massachusetts and New York to track down the front companies. We went to Beale Air Force base in Northern California to track U2 spy planes. We went to Smithfield, N.C, which is home to the airfields that many of these airplanes fly out of. Then we went to Kabul and Gardez, Afghanistan.

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But the two most interesting places were the rural town of Smithfield and Kinston down the road, where there?s another airstrip that a company called Aero Contractors uses. Aero is the company that flies many of these missions for the CIA. We went there and talked to a pilot who had worked for Aero about exactly what they did and how the program worked. 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.

Roychoudhuri: When you asked questions, what kind of answers did you get?

Thompson: What you start to figure out by spending time in Smithfield is that a lot of people know about the company and have at least an inkling of what goes on at the airport. Most don?t want to talk about it and don?t take a critical view of it. Folks we met there framed the debate within this religious discourse. The activists that we talked to were god-fearing devout Christians who felt like this was not what they signed up for as religious people, that it violates the religious tenets they adhere to. Interestingly, folks on the other side of the debate seem to be coming from a similar place, but just coming to a different conclusion. The subject of whether or not torture was permitted by the Bible was discussed in church there—and many congregants believed it was.

Paglen: It?s this small town with this open secret that nobody wants to talk about. It shows what?s going on culturally. When a country starts doing things like torturing and disappearing people, it?s not just a policy question, it?s also a cultural question.

Roychoudhuri: When you started to put the pieces of the rendition program together, what did you see?

Paglen: Take Khaled el-Masri (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalid_El-Masri) for example. His case was a blueprint for this program because it?s the most complete account. He showed up in Germany after having disappeared for five months and told this incredible story. His interrogators told him not to tell anybody because they wouldn?t believe him anyway. But when you excavate his story, there is a trail of evidence to corroborate it.

He says he was kidnapped in Macedonia on a certain day. It turns out that a plane-spotter took a picture of a known CIA airplane in Majorca [Spain] the day before el-Masri was kidnapped. German journalists went to the airport of Skopje [Macedonia] with this picture and verified the plane was there on that date. The plane had also filed a flight plan from Macedonia to Kabul. El-Masri said he was taken to Kabul. In Kabul, he said he was taken on a 10-minute drive to a prison. He drew a map of what he thought the prison floor plan was. We got on Google Earth, looked at Kabul and drew a ring around how far you could go in about 10 minutes. Then we compared the buildings in that ring to the map that el-Masri had drawn. We found a building that looks exactly like it. So we drove out there. There is indeed a giant facility with Americans there. He could not have made this up.

Roychoudhuri: You actually went to one of the places el-Masri believes he was held—the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.

Paglen: There have been at least three or four black sites in and around Kabul, Afghanistan. The one we definitely knew the location of was the Salt Pit. We found a driver who would take us out there. When you drive out to the Salt Pit, you have these wide plains; it?s very isolated. We were driving up and there was a traffic jam which was a goat herder with a bunch of goats on the road. As we?re waiting, he turns around and he?s wearing a hat that says KBR—Kellogg Brown and Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton). As we drove farther, we saw a huge complex with a big wall around it. There are signs in English saying this is an Afghan military facility, no entrance. There?s then a checkpoint. We were stopped. We told the guards we were turning around and going back to Kabul. We asked what goes on there and the guard said he didn?t know exactly. Then we asked if there were Americans there. And he said, ?Oh yes, there?s lots of Americans here.? And we saw some Americans sitting on a Humvee.

Roychoudhuri: Did you get a sense of the scope of the rendition program through your travels in Afghanistan?

Thompson: When Trevor and I went to Afghanistan we realized that this wasn?t about a handful of CIA secret prisons. The U.S. military has erected some 20 detention centers throughout Afghanistan —which all operate in near total secrecy. These are facilities that the U.N., the Afghan government, journalists, and human rights groups can?t get into. Extraordinary rendition is one facet of a much broader story of secrecy and imprisonment that spans the globe.

In Kabul and Gardez, we interviewed many people—in human rights organizations, NGOs, local journalists, and former detainees. We realized that the kinds of distinctions that we were making between CIA and military black sites, CIA and military torture made absolutely no sense to people. It?s more like the U.S. is treating this whole country as if it were a giant black site.

Paglen: This rendition and torture is one flavor of a larger thing going on: the U.S. taking people all over the place, imprisoning and torturing them without charge.

Thompson: From interviewing a lot of detainees and Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (http://www.aihrc.org.af/), it was clear that the Americans had grabbed hundreds and hundreds of people. They?re being held without charges, in some 20 different facilities.



Next page: We?re hearing about it now because it grew so big, clearly expanding beyond what the intention of the program was at first. There is no question that some of these guys they?re picking up did nothing and are the wrong people.


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By Sarah Merlin, January 5, 2007 at 4:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

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.

                                -30-

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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