INTERVIEW: authors of a new book "Torture Taxi:

INTERVIEW: authors of the new book “Torture Taxi:
Tue Nov 14, 2006 20:31


“Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights”

11/14/06 Air America... Peter B. Collins Show
INTERVIEW: authors of the new book “Torture Taxi:

Torture Taxi
The announcement confirms charges made in a new book, TORTURE TAXI: ON THE TRAIL ... In TORTURE TAXI, they travel to suburban Massachusetts to profile a CIA ...

Tracking the ‘Torture Taxi’

By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

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.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?

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.

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.

Next page: 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 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.

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.
-- Thompson

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.

It’s like the U.S. is treating this whole country [of Afghanistan] as if it were a giant black site.
-- Thompson

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

Main Page - Sunday, 11/19/06

Message Board by American Patriot Friends Network [APFN]


messageboard.gif (4314 bytes)