Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Webs of Evil, Webs of Light

by Sara Robinson
Onnesha Roychoudhuri's remarkable Tracking The Torture Taxi at Truthdig is the kind of reporting that, in better years, used to appear on the front pages of the country's best newsmagazines. The story is an interview with Trevor Paglen, an expert in secret military bases, and A.C. Thompson of the S.F. Weekly, whose recent book, "Tracking the Torture Taxi," follows their two-year quest to confirm the details of the American gulag built by the CIA and its contractors throughout the world.

The article alone is a hell of a read (which means that I'm going to have to go get the damn book now, and find time to read it). The most striking thing about this story -- apart from the way it blows the lid off America's secret prison network -- is the vast open-source network that Paglen and Thompson assembled in order to bring this most secret of operations into the light. It's a pure act of 21st-century participatory journalism. Here's Roychoudhuri's description:

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.

The story that unfolds from there is a case study in the enormous power of shared information networks. Paglen, who is part of a group at Berkeley researching military programs, hooked up with the community of planespotting hobbyists around the world. "At some point," Paglen tells Roychoudhuri, "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." When Dana Priest's coverage of America's secret prison network broke late last year, it provided the larger context in which Paglen's questions began to make sense.

Joining forces with Thompson, who supplied expertise in corporate research, the two were able to not only re-create the vast network of "torture taxis" operated by the CIA; they also discovered the various corporate shells and phony companies (some of them formed by entirely fictitious people) that gave this virtual airline its official cover, and protected it from oversight. Technology plays a huge role in this story, too: at one point, they located the infamous Salt Pit torture facility in Kabul using Google Earth and a rough description of the base's layout from someone who'd been confined there.

This isn't just an astonishing story, as shattering in its way as the stories that led to Frank Church's congressional investigation of the CIA in the mid-70s (which, in turn, gave us FISA and the rest of it). It's also a harbinger of what journalism might look like in the future -- trained researchers working in tandem with vast networks of amateurs, gathering information on a global scale and working together to discern meaningful patterns that tell the story.

But there's a ghastly flipside to this as well. As Roychoudhuri observes, "Torture Taxi" is also a tale of how these same networks can also conspire to increase the banality quotient of the evils committed.

As Thompson started pursuing the dummy corporations that were giving cover to these operations, one of the striking things he found was that the lawyers involved weren't the usual suspects. Rather than firms with known CIA or DC connections, they were usually small law offices run in rural towns by one or two lawyers:

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.?

And, he goes on to say, these folks usually have the tacit support of their communities.

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.

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.

Thompson's partner, Paglen, puts the acquiescence into a larger context. "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."

When we kick around visions of what a coming fascist America might look like, we sometimes imagine brownshirt anti-immigration thuggery, domestic terrorism committed by anti-choice zealots, and book-burning barbecues hosted by raging fundamentalists. But Thompson and Paglen's research seems to document the fact that we already have more than the required number of Good Germans - the staid rural burghers who quietly acknowledge the torture flights taking off from their local airports with the same combination of benign righteousness and willful denial that allowed the citizens of small towns in eastern Germany and Poland to wipe the dust of the crematoriums off their windowsills and go on about their everyday lives.

The worldwide web gives people like Thompson and Paglen access to the vast network of facts required to unravel the story of the gulag. That same web also connects people and churches in the most rural parts of America into vast consensus networks that enable them to justify their quiet, active support of that gulag, and perpetuate the treasonous evil it represents. As Paglen says: how we use this power is a cultural question that goes to the heart of who we are. It's a question that also offers us a glimpse into the best and the worst of what America's next world order might be.

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