Book review: Torture Taxi: On The Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights


Torture TaxiWhen Torture Taxi, by Trevor Paglen, “an expert on clandestine military installations,” and crime journalist A.C. Thompson was published in the United States in September 2006, it was the first book to focus on the CIA’s programme of “extraordinary rendition,” in which, as the authors describe it, terror suspects “were taken to countries where they would be tortured or brought to a secret network of CIA-run prisons around the world, where the CIA itself practiced torture.”

Torture Taxi was swiftly followed –- and superceded, in depth and detail –- by Stephen Grey’s authoritative Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme, but its first UK printing provides a reminder of its initial power –- as a well-told political detective story, whose topic was, and still is of enormous importance. It remains a good primer on the horrors of “extraordinary rendition,” unveiling, in particular, the ways in which, because the CIA is a civilian organization and not a part of the US military, its rendition hardware –- the jets used to transport prisoners around the world –- cannot officially be kept secret.

Registered with front companies, these planes, unlike the military’s, leave a paper trail in the records of various aviation bodies, which became the basis for much of the subsequent research into the planes’ itineraries, but only, ironically, after the planes themselves had first been monitored by plane-spotters and military secrecy geeks. The irony, of course, is that in the beginning the plane-spotters had no idea what they were tapping into, and even when they did –- becoming what the Guardian described as the “scourge” of the CIA –- they still cared more about their hobby than about clandestine operations run by the CIA.

It’s the exposition of this part of the story that provides the thrills and spills in Paglen and Thompson’s account, starting with the “air traffic controller with a particular interest in ‘black’ military projects,” who first noted unusual aircraft activity at an airstrip in Nevada in December 2002, and who then emailed other enthusiasts the tail numbers of four suspicious planes. Traced to companies that apparently had connections with the CIA, and involving aircraft that had already been noticed visiting “lots of interesting places,” the plane-spotters had unwittingly stumbled upon the most closely guarded secret in the “War on Terror.”

In tracing the story, Paglen and Thompson effectively sketch the contours of the rendition programme’s evolution from a top secret “finding” statement signed by President Bush on September 17, 2001, authorizing “the creation of a network of secret prisons –- ‘black sites’ –- around the globe,” and empowering the CIA “to kidnap anyone it suspected of having terrorist affiliations,” and also tell a number of individual rendition stories; in particular, those of the British resident Binyam Mohamed, and Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen. Mohamed was rendered to Morocco, where he was tortured for 18 months, and also spent time in the “Dark Prison,” a secret CIA-run prison near Kabul, and El-Masri, who was seized because he had the same name as a man suspected of aiding the 9/11 hijackers, was kidnapped in Macedonia, where he had gone for a holiday, and rendered to the Salt Pit, another secret CIA-run prison near Kabul, where he was held for four months until the CIA realized it had made a mistake, and he was dropped off in Albania and told to make his own way home.

In between these accounts, Paglen and Thompson make a number of visits to places connected with “extraordinary rendition,” which, although generally fruitless, convey menacing glimpses of the dark machinations that underpin the programme. In a small town in Massachusetts, Paglen hits a dead end at the offices of one of the CIA’s front companies, but the chapter provides chilling confirmation of the “ghost” individuals assigned to the boards of the various companies involved, people like Colleen A. Bornt and Bryan P. Dyess, who don’t really exist and whose signatures vary wildly from document to document.

In Afghanistan, where Paglen and Thompson travel in search of the CIA’s prisons, their mission is also largely inconclusive, although they find and photograph the Salt Pit, which Afghan soldiers describe to them as “an Afghan military facility,” while conceding that “lots of Americans” are also present. After a tip-off from Afghan journalists, they also find and photograph the gates of an undisclosed secret prison in Kabul itself, which appears to be manned by Special Forces and Gurkhas.

Scratching away at the visible –- and not so visible –- reference points of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme, Torture Taxi will not satisfy those who want exhaustive details of the many hundreds of people who have been rendered since 2001 –- including many other innocent men, who are not mentioned –- but is perfect for those who want a brisk introduction to the front line in America’s disturbing and unprecedented retreat from domestic and international law.

Torture Taxi: On The Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights by Trevor Paglen & A.C. Thompson is published by Icon Books. For more on “extraordinary rendition,” see my newly published book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on Nth Position.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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