April 1, 2015
Tracking the ‘Torture Taxi’
Posted on Sep 19, 2006
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.
Square, Site wide
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.
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