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Tracking the ‘Torture Taxi’
Posted on Sep 19, 2006
Roychoudhuri: Who are these people?
Paglen: When A.C. interviewed people who had been held at the military air base Bagram, prisoners told him that there were Iraqis, Yemenis, an international cast of characters at this DOD prison. So what the hell are they doing there? These are not high-profile renditions like el-Masri or Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. So who are these guys? How did they get there? Is this part of the rendition program, or has the practice of transferring prisoners to these different places around the world become a standard practice?
Roychoudhuri: In the book, you make clear that the rendition program has been around for years. What has changed?
Paglen: The program was established over multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican. For example, Aero Contractors was set up under the Carter administration. The counter-terrorist unit in the CIA was set up under the Reagan administration, but the rendition program was set up under Clinton. It?s an accumulation of the capacity of this infrastructure. After 9/11, the CIA went about setting up this entire infrastructure. Materially, they started getting airplanes and secret prisons together. They also started putting together a corporate structure, meaning shell companies. All of this was already in place, but not solidified. All the controls seemed to be taken off of it. They?re not planning each operation so meticulously, they?re not getting presidential authorization for each operation.
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. One of the differences between the pre- and post-9/11 is that the CIA becomes squarely in charge of the program. Before, the CIA was working with the FBI.
Thompson: The pre-9/11 program was geared more towards adjudicating people domestically who were suspected of crimes against American citizens. That was obviously not quite as controversial as running this huge program that?s snatching people and taking them to secret dungeons around the world.
Roychoudhuri: Clearly, other countries have to be at least partially aware of the program in order for the U.S. program to operate. Did you get a sense of the level of collaboration?
Paglen: We know that immediately after 9/11 the CIA set up a program to collaborate with 80 foreign countries to varying degrees. The CIA also started funding other intelligence services in order to use them as proxies. We also know that some of these collaborations were kept off the record; supposedly there is no paper trail.
Roychoudhuri: Has that off-the-record quality caused glitches in the program?
Paglen: What happened in October of 2001 is that one of these airplanes landed in Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) picked up a guy named Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed (http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2004/10/jamil_qasim_sae.html). The plane landed on the tarmac; they had this guy in chains. That guy was handed over to the Americans and put into this Gulfstream. They were going to fly him out of there, but the air traffic controllers require a landing fee and they refused to pay. The ISI then went to the airport officials and told them to waive the landing fee, so the plane took off. But it created a stir, and drew attention to the aircraft. A Pakistani journalist heard about this and published it, including the tail number of the plane in the newspaper. American journalists then got their hands on this tail number, and this is one of the very early keys that began to unlock parts of this story.
Roychoudhuri: As journalists have begun tracking plane numbers, the CIA has attempted to reshuffle. They change the number on the plane, or they change the phone line of the shell companies. How much do you think public scrutiny can achieve?
Thompson: A ton. If people want the CIA to be reined in and if they feel we shouldn?t go around the world summarily detaining and torturing people, they can truly pressure their government to make that happen. They did it in the ‘70s through Frank Church, the Idaho senator, and the Church Committee. They severely curbed the transgressions and the misdeeds of the CIA. The thing is, by and large Americans don?t care about this. Europeans, who play a much smaller role in this, are absolutely outraged about it; their governments are outraged about it. 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.
Roychoudhuri: You quote 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick in the book: ?In criminal justice, you either prosecute suspects or let them go. But if you?ve treated them in ways that won?t allow you to prosecute them, you?re in this no man?s land. What do you do with those people?? Based on the fact that it?s so difficult to bring these people back out of this extralegal system, do you have any sense of where the rendition program is going?
Paglen: This is the crucial question that we are facing right now. Bush transferred a handful of guys to Guantanamo (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5321606.stm) and acknowledged they were kept in these secret prisons. Congress has to come up with a framework to prosecute these guys. It?s common knowledge that most of the guys at Guantanamo are nobodies. Many were turned in by bounty hunters. But the guys that Bush transferred to Guantanamo Bay are guys that everybody agrees are bad guys. The sticking point is that they have tortured them for years and the evidence against them is totally tainted by rendition and torture. These are guys that people definitely want to see put on trial. By moving them to Guantanamo Bay, Bush is basically challenging Congress and saying, ?If you want to put Khaled Sheikh Mohammed on trial, you?re going to have to retroactively authorize torture, rendition, and the black site program.?
If Congress does authorize the president?s version of the bill, they?re not only retroactively authorizing torture, they?re creating a legal framework for the future. That would create a system where disappearing and torturing people would become a part of the law.
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