Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights
A Gulfstream jet that ferries hooded, anesthetized detainees from one foreign country to another for months or years of brutal interrogation often spends its downtime at a small commercial airstrip in bucolic Smithfield, N.C. The purchase of the plane for the CIA front company that owns it was handled by a divorce attorney from suburban Boston. The "dark prison," the dreaded destination of many of the Gulfstream's flights, is just blocks from an Afghan police station. All these revelations have equally banal roots: men and women all over the world who spend their spare time keeping track of which airplanes land and take off from their local airfield.
It is thanks to these "planespotters" that journalists Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson are able to grab brief hold of some of the many tentacles of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program in their new book Torture Taxi. In late 2002, a hobbyist took note of the tail numbers of a strange mix of civilian planes at a government airfield in Nevada and posted his observations on the web. Fellow spotters, and eventually journalists, began using civilian aviation records, tracking software, and updated postings to keep tabs on the planes' comings and goings between unusual destinations--Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq, a small Romanian airfield. Working from previously published accounts and their own reporting, Paglen and Thompson are able to match the planes' flight plans and other official traces with the stories of specific people who say they were detained, quickly bundled onto private planes manned by masked, black-clad Americans, and whisked away for privation, interrogation, and torture before being released with no explanation. Paglen and Thompson were also able to sift through the planes' mostly bogus paper trails to seize on a few specific places where the rendition program's black world intersects with our own, such as Smithfield, where a sizable fraction of the citizenry is apparently on the agency payroll, or Dedham, Mass., where the only real name on one plane's papers plies a quiet law trade in a drab building around the corner from a Dunkin Donuts. While searching for secret CIA prisons in Kabul, they meet an armed, nonuniformed American who says he's from Maryland and guards the gate at a facility where even Afghan authorities are not permitted to enter.
Although a slim 205 pages, Torture Taxi packs in a fascinating thumbnail of the CIA's air operations over the years, a glimpse inside the planespotting subculture, and account after account, chilling in their similarity, of the renditions and the open-ended torment that results. The book is also a bit of a mess, poorly organized and frequently repetitive, though, to be fair, the story itself is defined by elusivity and uncertainty. As is so often the case, things pick up when Paglen and Thompson go places and talk to people--or at least try to talk to people, in particular the stonewalling Americans they discover on the fringes of the program. And so Torture Taxi works best as a much-needed reminder that the United States' quasi-official kidnapping and extra-legal imprisonment isn't merely happening in some other country, far from our daily thoughts or our responsibility. It may be unfolding right now as close as your nearest runway.