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Tracking Torture


The book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights (Melville House; 208 pages), by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, is an investigation of the infamous “extraordinary rendition” program used by the CIA to carry detainees to countries where torture sessions are a standard part of state “security.” Paglen, a UC Berkeley expert on clandestine military operations, and Thompson, a George Polk Award-winning San Francisco journalist, began their immersion in this most disturbing of homeland security programs through contacts with “planespotting” hobbyists who noticed a series of unusual flight patterns in the western United States.

The “rendition” program began under President Clinton, but has roots in covert air operations begun by the CIA after WWll (carried out most famously via “Air America” during the Vietnam War). But, recalling Vietnam historian Marilyn Young’s description of the Iraq war as “Vietnam on crack,” the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” has increased the use of these flights dramatically.

In order to uncover the truth about these planes, Thompson later explained, “we were researching this as people who didn’t have intelligence sources, as people who didn’t have sources deep in the aviation business. We were trying to reverse engineer the program so we gathered up all the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records and corporate paperwork that we could. Then we also networked with the planespotters ­ the sort of nerdy hobbyists who spend their time obsessing over the minutia and esoterica of aviation.”

Thompson and Paglen eventually also found a former pilot with a CIA-controlled aircraft company called Aero Contractors, based in Smithfield, North Carolina, who was willing to talk to them. The pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained, “Ninety-nine percent of the flying was just hauling people around. It was pretty mundane stuff mainly in Central Asia and South America.”

But the “mundane” hauling was part of an overall program of torture which would have been used to justify airstrikes if carried out on U.S. soldiers. One especially chilling example discussed in Torture Taxi is the nightmarish ordeal of Binyam Mohammed. Mohammed, arrested for using a false passport, wound up interrogated by an American who told him, “There are no lawyers. You can co-operate with us the easy way, or the hard way. If you don’t talk to us, you’re going to Jordan The Arabs will deal with you.” Once transferred to Morocco, Mohammed was systematically tortured by men who cut his chest and penis with a scalpel.

The majority of Smithfield, North Carolina residents with whom Paglen and Thompson spoke, having grown accustomed to the intelligence presence in their town, did not support protestors who came to the community following public revelations of the CIA flights. But Paglen and Thompson did meet several devout Christians in the area who felt they could not in good conscience stay silent about local connections to torture overseas. These local citizens stood up to the disapproval of their neighbors and joined anti-torture protestors.

A.C. Thompson told me he hoped Torture Taxi would contribute to an increase in grassroots activism pressuring U.S. elected representatives to end “extraordinary renditions.” Thompson notes that Democrats did not make torture an issue in the last election, and Congress is currently doing little to curb the egregious violations of basic human rights at the core of the Bush regime’s “gloves off” intelligence operations.

Though Democrats now control Congress, the dominant center to right spectrum of the party has effectively stymied its more progressive colleagues, who no longer call for George W. Bush’s impeachment, have been effectively deterred from halting funding for the Iraq war and have not been able to keep Democratic leadership from echoing Bush’s bellicose saber-rattling toward Iran. On torture, as cable TV personality Bill Maher recently commented, Bush “made a cynical bet: That we wouldn’t care if we became a Big Brother country, that has now tortured a lot of random people.” But, Maher went on, “they say evil happens when good men do nothing well, the Democrats prove that it also happens when mediocre people do nothing.”

Jesuit priest and anti-war activist Steve Kelly is one of the U.S. activists committed to doing something about our government’s widescale use of torture. Before the 2006 mid-term elections, Fr. Kelly told me, “my work will continue no matter who gets elected.” In an interview earlier this month, he said that it is essential for more faith-based communities to take stands against torture. “Pew Catholics slowly turned against the death penalty after the Pope came out against it, but now some Catholics are talking about supporting torture. But to not speak out against it is not acceptable: silence in this case is not only deafening, it’s complicity.”

In terms of U.S. government use of “coercion,” Kelly told me, “They figure people will tolerate torture, the same way they did with nuclear weapons … this idea that if North Korea has nuclear weapons, they are evil, but if the U.S. has them they are virtuous, is nonsense. The ends do not justify the means.”

As part of the Ploughshares movement begun in 1980 by radical priest Dan Berrigan and others, Fr. Kelly served time in federal prison for the nonviolent disarmament of nuclear weapon delivery systems. In December 2005, Kelly served as chaplain for Witness to Torture, a delegation of U.S. activists who defied the U.S. travel ban on Cuba with a peaceful march to the gates of the Guantanamo Bay naval base and prison camp.

On November 19, 2006 Fr. Kelly was arrested outside Fort Huachuca, in Sierra Vista, Arizona, where he was taking part in a peaceful protest against the torture interrogation tactics taught at Fort Huachuca by U.S. military intelligence. Fr. Kelly told me, “The camp is filled with 18, 19, and 20 year olds being turned into torturers. It’s just like corporate America, they get them young and indoctrinate them into their ideology.”

An Army field manual on interrogation, the “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual,” was written at Fort Huachuca, and officers and soldiers responsible for human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have worked at or were trained at the Fort’s Headquarters for Army Intelligence Training.

Fr. Kelly said he thought the reason that he is being prosecuted along with activist priest Fr. Luis Vitale is that “they want to keep others from doing what we did they want to shut down protest.” But Fr. Kelly points out that at the “School of Americas,” the Georgia military training facility where human rights abusing officers from throughout the Americas received U.S. training in counter-insurgency, such a heavy hand has backfired. “The authorities gave the maximum — 6 months — to SOA protestors, but though the protests started out with a handful of people, there are now upwards of 20,000 people a year at the annual protests there.”

When Fr. Kelly and Fr. Vitale were arrested in November, they were attempting to deliver a letter to Fort Huachuca’s director, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, former head of Abu Ghraib prison. In it, the two priests wrote, “We come here to speak with enlisted personnel about the illegality and immorality of torture according to international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions. We condemn torture as a dehumanization of both prisoners and interrogators, resulting in humiliation, disability and even death. We are convinced that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is unconstitutional. We totally reject its conclusions. Torture is a useless and unreliable tool that leads to an accepted practice of terrorization and the rationalization of wrongdoing. We are here to repent and, because of our sense of moral and human decency, we condemn torture.”

BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at


Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at:

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