Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition
(Aperture/Magnum Foundation, 2016)
On New Year’s Eve of 2004, Khalid El-Masri, a German car salesman of Lebanese origin, was on a brief holiday in Macedonia. Unfortunately, his name resembled that of an al-Qaeda terrorist connected with the Hamburg cell that had planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Macedonian police detained him and turned him over to the CIA, which held him prisoner for three weeks in a hotel in the Macedonian town of Skopje, then flew him to the CIA’s notorious Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan, where he was held for four months.
In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed El-Masri’s account of his time in CIA custody: he was tortured. He was hooded, shackled, subject to sensory deprivation, given little food and putrid water to drink, beaten, strip-searched, and sodomized. He was afforded no access to legal counsel or the outside world. The CIA finally concluded they had the wrong man (not that international law would have allowed them to so treat the right man), and flew him from Afghanistan to Albania, where they dumped him on a deserted road near a fake checkpoint obligingly set up by Albanian officials. He was then deported to Germany on the grounds he had entered the country illegally.
El-Masri’s flights from Macedonia to Afghanistan and back to Albania were conducted as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, in which suspects (almost always Muslim men) were disappeared and secretly flown to countries whose governments would torture them on behalf of the CIA. Later, the flights went to the CIA’s black sites, locations not formally acknowledged either by the CIA or the countries where they were located, in which the CIA practiced “enhanced interrogation techniques”—its euphemism for torture.
Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition takes a thorough if impressionistic look at the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. It is not an impassioned tract, although its revulsion is palpable; its tone is cool rather than hot. The bulk of the book consists of British photographer Edmund Clark’s images. But not a single image of anyone connected with the program—victims, pilots, torturers, or government officials who approved the torture—appears in the book. Instead, there are photographs of de-populated places associated with the program, such as the headquarters of CIA front companies that organized the torture transport flights, the facilities of the air transport companies that conducted them, and rooms in the homes of since-released torture victims. There are also documents, or parts of documents, connected with the program, including the notorious Department of Justice memo green-lighting torture, State Department memos acknowledging the extraordinary rendition flights were conducted on behalf of the U.S. government, and bills from the air transport companies to CIA front companies for services rendered, among many others. Interspersed are six essays by British human rights researcher Crofton Black. Black’s text works in tandem with Clark’s pictures, creating an overall effect that is more a photo-collage that invites the reader to contemplate the program than a torches-and-pitchforks jeremiad against it, but no less effective for that.
The Bush/Cheney administration used a network of private CIA front companies to organize the torture transport flights as a way of providing themselves with plausible deniability. Yet these front companies serve as a rich source of information for Black and Clark, particularly a lawsuit by Richmor Aviation, one of the air transport companies, against Sportsflight Air, one of the CIA front companies that booked the flights. Testimony in that lawsuit, for non-payment of bills and losses incurred as the result of the negative publicity Richmor received for operating the CIA’s so-called torture taxis provides the book with its title.
Black, who has investigated governmental counter-terrorism tactics on behalf of the British human rights group Reprieve and other organizations, has a knack for the telling detail. He includes a transcript page from the testimony in the lawsuit in which a Richmor executive refers to transporting “government personnel” and their “invitees.” His attorney is about to ask another question when the judge interrupts.
“Invitees?” the judge asks. “Invitees,” the executive responds.
One can almost hear the tone of barely restrained incredulousness the judge uses to ask the question, and the flat affectless manner in which the aviation executive responds.
Given the sensitive nature of its subject matter, it’s no surprise that the authors sometimes ran across invisible tripwires reminding them of who they were dealing with. For this book, Clark visited Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Finland, Libya, Afghanistan, and even a cushy resort in Palma de Mallorca, where a CIA rendition crew enjoyed a little rest and relaxation after dropping off some prisoners to be tortured. He also photographed locations in the U.S. and while he was shooting pictures of the facilities of an aviation company at the airport in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a man approached him, asking him that his photos not include any of the employees. The man left, returned, and photographed Clark and the license plate of his car. As Clark drove away, a police car appeared and followed him to the airport perimeter. He had a similar experience at the former site of the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan, where one CIA prisoner was tortured to death. (The Salt Pit also figures prominently in Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.) “After 20 minutes, my Afghan assistant says it is time to go,” Clark writes. “The [gas] station attendant is phoning someone and I am attracting attention on the street.”
The CIA used a maze of smoke and mirrors in an effort to conceal its torture transport program, and this book is a valuable resource as one of the few generally available sources of information about that program. Regrettably, one thing it has in common with its subject is that it can be a bit confusing. For some of the book’s documents, Black highlights the significant section. But on the documents where he doesn’t do that, we have to assume that somewhere in the typed or scribbled mishmosh is the information that buttresses his point.
And somewhat mystifyingly, on the pages featuring a photo or document, the page number is followed by an arrow pointing to another series of numbers. Are they footnotes? Secret code? No, they refer to other pages in the book supposedly related to the photo or document on that page. But the connections are not always clear. And the principle by which the book’s photos and documents are organized is similarly murky. (Worsening matters, the book has no index.)
Black does a better job of organizing his six essays, each of which has a discrete focus. Over the course of the book, the essays build a comprehensive narrative that tells the story of the extraordinary rendition program, detailing everything from the history of the CIA’s black sites to the largely sham investigations conducted by countries that hosted black sites in the wake of their existence being made public.
While the book’s photos can appear to be arbitrarily assembled, some patterns are discernable. The book devotes a lot of attention to the CIA’s black site in a converted horse barn in the woods just north of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. On page 13, we get a photo of the woods; on page 43, the roofline of the former CIA torture chamber looms through the woods. On page 49, we move in closer with a photo of what appears to be a suburban condo, but is in fact the front of the black site, designed to throw off anyone who might be riding past on the road in front. On page 57, we are inside the black site, at least schematically, with a photo of the building’s floor plan. Most locals were kept in the dark about the facility’s purpose. When construction began on the site in 2004, one villager said, “We thought they were going to build hotels, develop a business, but they sold all the horses and then this certain emptiness started.”
After he was released, the German car salesman Khalid El-Masri, one of 119 prisoners officially acknowledged by the CIA to have flown their unfriendly skies between 2002 and 2008, sued them. But his case, like those of others who have challenged their mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government in the “War on Terror,” was thrown out of court on the grounds that it would damage U.S. national security by revealing state secrets. Part of a statement to that effect by CIA director Michael Hayden is included in this book, which offers an elegantly bureaucratic example of the fog machine at work. Hayden notes, “I have determined that no information can be adduced on the public record to establish or refute such claims, or any defenses thereto, without jeopardizing the national security of the United States.” In this book, Black and Clark put forth a respectable effort to unveil this dark corner of American history.