There have been several attempts to reconstruct the geography of the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition. I’ve long admired the work of my good friend Trevor Paglen, described in his book with A.C. Thompson, Torture Taxi: on the trail of the CIA’s rendition flights, available in interactive map form through Trevor’s collaboration with the Institute for Applied Autonomy as Terminal Air. (I’ve commented on the project before, here and especially here).
And you can only applaud Trevor’s chutzpah is displaying the results of his work on a public billboard:
The project, which involved the painstaking analysis of countless flight records and endless exchanges with the geeks who track aircraft as a hobby, triggered an installation in which the CIA was reconfigured as a ‘travel agency‘:
At the time (2007), Rhizome – which co-sponsored the project – explained:
Terminal Air is an installation that examines the mechanics of extraordinary rendition, a current practice of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in which suspected terrorists detained in Western countries are transported to so-called “black sites” for interrogation and torture. Based on extensive research, the installation imagines the CIA office through which the program is administered as a sort of travel agency coordinating complex networks of private contractors, leased equipment, and shell companies. Wall-mounted displays track the movements of aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition, while promotional posters identify the private contractors that supply equipment and personnel. Booking agents’ desks feature computers offering interactive animations that enable visitors to monitor air traffic and airport data from around the world, while office telephones provide real-time updates as new flight plans are registered with international aviation authorities. Seemingly-discarded receipts, notes attached to computer monitors, and other ephemera provide additional detail including names of detainees and suspected CIA agents, dates of known renditions, and images of rendition aircraft. Terminal Air was inspired through conversations with researcher and author Trevor Paglen (Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights – Melville House Publishing). Data on the movements of the planes was compiled by Paglen, author Stephen Grey (Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program – St. Martin’s Press) and an anonymous army of plane-spotting enthusiasts.
There’s a short video documenting the project on Vimeo here and embedded below (though strangely Trevor isn’t mentioned and doesn’t appear in it):
Although Trevor subsequently explained why he tried to ‘stay away from cartography and “mapping” as much as possible’ in his work, preferring instead the ‘view from the ground’, the cartography of all of this matters in so many ways – from the covert complicity of many governments around the world in a global geopolitics of torture through to the toll exerted on the bodies and minds of prisoners as they were endlessly shuffled in hoods and chains over long distances from one black site to another.
And now, thanks to the equally admirable work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it’s possible to take the analysis even further. Here is Crofton Black and Sam Raphael introducing their project, ‘The boom and bust of the CIA’s secret torture sites‘:
In spring 2003 an unnamed official at CIA headquarters in Langley sat down to compose a memo. It was 18 months after George W Bush had declared war on terror. “We cannot have enough blacksite hosts,” the official wrote. The reference was to one of the most closely guarded secrets of that war – the countries that had agreed to host the CIA’s covert prison sites.
Between 2002 and 2008, at least 119 people disappeared into a worldwide detention network run by the CIA and facilitated by its foreign partners.
Lawyers, journalists and human rights organisations spent the next decade trying to figure out whom the CIA had snatched and where it had put them. A mammoth investigation by the US Senate’s intelligence committee finally named 119 of the prisoners in December 2014. It also offered new insights into how the black site network functioned – and gruesome, graphic accounts of abuses perpetrated within it.
Many of those 119 had never been named before.
The report’s 500-page summary, which contained the CIA official’s 2003 remarks, was only published after months of argument between the Senate committee, the CIA and the White House. It was heavily censored, while the full 6,000-page study it was based on remains secret. All names of countries collaborating with the CIA in its detention and interrogation operations were removed, along with key dates, numbers, names and much other material.
In nine months of research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have unpicked these redactions to piece together the hidden history of the CIA’s secret sites. This account unveils many of the censored passages in the report summary, drawing on public data sources such as flight records, aviation contracts, court cases, prisoner testimonies, declassified government documents and media and NGO reporting.
Although many published accounts of individual journeys through the black site network exist, this is the first comprehensive portrayal of the system’s inner dynamics from beginning to end.
At present the mapping is rudimentary (see the screenshot above), but the database matching prisoners to black sites means that it ought to be possible to construct a more fine-grained representation of the cascade of individual movements. The Rendition Project has already identified more than 40 rendition circuits involving more than 60 renditions of CIA prisoners: see here and the interactive maps here.