Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson. Melville House Publishing, 205 pages, $23.00
Reviewed by David Preston
This innocuous-looking little book tilts at some pretty fearsome windmills. Kidnapping. Murder. Torture. Mind you, we’re not talking about the kind of stuff that goes on in the basement of some urban psychopath. We’re talking about crimes that are being approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government. What a scoop, right?
Actually, no. By now the fact that the CIA disappears and tortures people – even innocent ones – with the full approval of the president is stale news, and Torture Taxi doesn’t try to freshen it up. What the book does do is retell the breaking of that story (the “extraordinary rendition” story) as if it were a murder mystery, replete with victims, bad guys and gumshoes. The crucial moment comes when the detectives, as played by the press, are handed the key to the extraordinary rendition riddle by an unlikely bunch of folks known as “planespotters.” Planespotters are the Deep Throat, if you will, of the Rendition-gate scandal. First, some terminology.
Extraordinary rendition is a practice whereby a team of CIA operatives, usually operating on foreign soil, illegally captures a person suspected of links to terrorism and transports him to a third country puppet (Egypt, say) where U.S. law doesn’t apply and government-sanctioned torture is the norm. The suspect is then tortured in order to extract a “confession.” Sometimes the torture is conducted by officials of the third country, but more often it is conducted directly by the CIA. Sometimes the suspect is actually guilty of having links to terror; other times he is not. Sometimes he survives the torture; other times not.
The CIA seems to be playing a percentage game here: So long as a suspect lives long enough to produce information that might be useful, or will otherwise make the boss look good, the end is considered to have justified the means. This has been standard counter-insurgency practice for at least sixty years.
President Bush and his cronies have been ardent defenders of both extraordinary rendition and torture as weapons in the GWAT (Global War on Terror). Of course, no one knows what the actual trial-by-torture success rate is, since that kind of information, like the program itself, is strictly hush-hush. But it’s probably about the same as that of the Spanish Inquisition. Which, need I remind you, we all have to thank for winning the GWOW (Global War on Witchcraft).
Note: The non-existent Iraqi nuclear weapons program was a hot tip provided by Libyan suspect Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who coughed up information about the program under torture. OK, so maybe that one didn’t pan out. Remember though, it’s a percentage game.
* * * *
Planespotting is a somewhat quirky hobby that attracts a small but dedicated band of international enthusiasts. Often armed with nothing but pens, note pads and binoculars, planespotters hang out by airfields and jot down the tail numbers of airplanes they spot taking off and landing. They then post their findings online, allowing anyone with Internet access to determine where almost any plane is (or has been) since the spotters began tracking it.
At first flush, planespotting wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with the CIA – until you consider that the CIA has to use civilian aircraft to do its dirty work in foreign countries. In the months after 9/11, planespotters started noticing something fishy about a handful of civilian planes they’d been tracking. The planes were spotted landing at small airports and military airbases known to be favored by the CIA. Then the planes were spotted in unlikely places like Romania and Sweden. They were spotted yet again in torture hotspots like Egypt, Morocco and Afghanistan. Finally, they were tracked returning to the U.S., only to begin another round of international hopscotch.
Bizarre as these patterns were, they wouldn’t have raised eyebrows outside the arcane world of planespotting but for the fact that they corresponded precisely with the itineraries of kidnap victims who had been whisked off the streets of Milan, Stockholm, New York and elsewhere, and dropped into CIA-run torture chambers on the other side of the world.
After several torture victims who had been released started talking to the press, the planespotters came forward with their records to corroborate the victims’ accounts. Caught with their pants down, government officials were forced to admit that the U.S. was, in fact, kidnapping and torturing people. Astonishingly though, instead of acknowledging any wrongdoing, the Bush PR machine, led by the Justice Department, simply shifted gears and defended the policy, which it is still doing to this day.
Torture Taxi does a fair job of covering the salient points of the extraordinary rendition saga, from its furtive origins in the Clinton era to its establishment as a major pillar of Bush administration anti-terror policy. The book is also a good primer on the legal problems surrounding torture, namely that it is not legal. Ironically, the rendered and tortured suspects can never be indicted or brought to trial, since their “confessions” are worthless as evidence in court.
Paglen and Thompson drag the reader down the occasional blind alley, wasting time exposing low-level CIA “dummy” companies and leaving never-to-be-returned messages at the offices of CIA-linked airlines. Some of these pages could have been devoted to better things. The book also suffers from the authors’ failure to reach beneath the scandal itself to address the broader moral implications of torture as official policy.
Though perhaps Torture Taxi provides too frail a lance to tilt at the heart of the torture beast, it still gets a few good jabs in here and there, and makes for a quick and engaging mystery story – provided you don’t think too much about the horror that lurks behind the mystery.
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