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Secret CIA Prisons in Your Backyard

The largest covert CIA operation since the Cold War is run not only by shadowy government contractors in the darkest corners of Afghanistan, but also by unassuming Americans in places like Dedham, Mass.
 
 
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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.

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.

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.

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 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, it was clear that the Americans had grabbed hundreds and hundreds of people. They're being held without charges, in some 20 different facilities.

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. 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 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.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. A former assistant editor of AlterNet, she has written for AlterNet, MotherJones.com, Women's e-News , and PopMatters.