The Third Degree

What always horrifies me is, as Hannah Arendt phrased it, the utter banality of evil. Every generation’s atrocity has the pencil pushers who work, somehow, in the business of murder, torture and degradation. While they literally don’t get their hands dirty, the horrors would be impossible to accomplish without them.

Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, the beautifully written and investigated book by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, shows how the US policy of torture can be traced to a family law office in a forgettable building surrounded by a bagel shop, hair salon and Wardle’s Pharmacy in Dedham, Massachusetts, and to the sleepy town of little league games and Boy Scout camping trips that is Smithfield, North Carolina.

A.C. Thompson, a staff writer at SF Weekly, recently spoke with City Belt.

You’ve got a background of touring with punk bands — so how did you end up in journalism?

I was always interested in writing, and I was always into journalism. But I spent a bunch of years hanging out in the punk scene, and doing that whole trip. In my mid-20s, I realized I needed to have my own career, my own vocation, rather than just basically being a roadie for bands and supporting their dreams. So I got into writing when I was about 24 years old.

I was always interested in social justice stories, and stories that spoke to struggles between the powerful and the less powerful. But I really wanted to do crazy overseas adventure travel narrative reporting, and that was originally what I thought I’d be doing.

But then when I was here in San Francisco, writing day in and day out, I found that the thing that I could do that would be most effective and most interesting would be to dig into a subject and figure out what was really going on. It became sort of a quest for me to see if I could prove that people were doing wrong and catch them in the act of doing that before the authorities did. If I could document malfeasance, misfeasance, ineptitude, evil, idiocy–that was my goal. And that’s what I’ve been basically doing ever since.

Can you tell me a little bit about how this book came about?

Back in December 2005, my co-author Trevor Paglen gave me a call and said, “Hey, I’ve been checking out these planes. Can I come over to your office and talk about it?” And he came over and basically said, “I believe these planes are involved with the CIA in some way. Can you help me figure out who owns them and where they’re based, and find any clues about the corporations who allegedly own these planes?”

So right on the spot we started doing document searches at my desk, and looking up the ownership records for some of these planes. Very quickly it became clear that the planes that he was interested in were not normal.
Normally, if you look at any company, you’ll find that it has an office somewhere, it has a CEO or president who can be easily located, it has a Web site — it has all the basic sort of stuff that you’d expect. And the companies that putatively owned these planes had none of that. You couldn’t find an office, you couldn’t find any real estate that they owned, you couldn’t find a phone number for the executives, you couldn’t find an address, and you couldn’t find any homes that executives of these companies owned. Now, you’d expect that the president of even a small aviation company probably owns a home somewhere–you know, you wouldn’t see any of this stuff. And so, very quickly, we realized that there was something weird about this.

Once you saw that something wasn’t really right, what was the next step?

Our whole thing was that 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. That was our goal.

So we gathered up all the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records and corporate paperwork that we could. Then we also networked with the plane spotters–the sort of nerdy hobbyists who spend their time obsessing over the minutia and esoterica of aviation — Where does one plane go? Where does it land? What kind of plane is it? Who owns it? Who flies it?

In a lot of ways, they were the ones who actually cracked the CIA’s code, because these geeky types have Web sites and listservs where they’re sharing information with one another. And a lot of them are very interested in suspicious aircraft, and they had obtained flight logs and documented these planes — with photos — in very interesting places.

We could build on that information and start understanding better where these planes were going, and that, in fact, they were very likely CIA planes. That same tactic was employed by Stephen Grey, the author of Ghost Plane , and John Sifton at Human Rights Watch. And really, that sort of became the cutting edge of human rights research and reporting at the moment — to understand how aviation flight patterns work. It was kind of a weird thing.

What kind of obstacles did you run into when you were investigating this?

The obstacles are everywhere; they’re everything — because everything here is secret. So anything you want to figure out is difficult to figure out. Anything you want to learn is a challenge. To compile any piece of information for this one was not easy. Really, the obstacle was trying to get any definite information at any time.

Also, when we could find people who were closely associated with the program, obviously a lot of them didn’t want to talk. We contacted numerous people who fly these missions, and only one of them would eventually talk to us. To get that one interview, we drove all over North Carolina and made many phone calls to people who were basically CIA contract pilots.

How did you understand the reluctance of the pilots, for example, to want to talk to you?

I knew that the vast majority of them weren’t going to talk to us. These are people who are involved in secret missions, they’re working under contract with the CIA, they’re people who tend to believe in this sort of stuff–and so I knew it was going to be a challenge to get them to talk. In a lot of these cases though, it’s people who become less-than-gruntled with what they’re doing or with their employer who might want to talk. That’s one of the ways to get in.

I found the section on Smithfield really interesting. You wrote about how, to protest the torture flights, for people there it was to protest the people that were you’re neighbors. It seemed like that touched on a theme in the book — the banality of evil.

Precisely. That’s definitely a theme that runs throughout the book. For us, that was sort of the whole point of doing the book; to point out to people that this torture thing, this CIA program, is not something that happens abroad — it’s not distanced from your daily life. The people who make it happen are your neighbors. They are unassuming people who are not necessarily government employees. They provide the cover and provide the infrastructure for the CIA to cruise around the world, kidnap people, throw them in dungeons and torment them.

That was really the theme that we wanted to hammer home: We all have culpability here. This is our government, these are our neighbors, this is our community, and this is not an exotic, totally covert thing. This is also a very pedestrian program. It’s in some ways a program that connects the very exotic and horrific to the very mundane facets of American life.

Smithfield is a very small place. As we wrote in the book, a lot of the people pretty much knew that there was some sort of CIA activity going on at the little regional airport there. What was interesting to us was when that became very widely known, when people finally sprang up to protest this, the discourse was all about ‘What Would Jesus Do? Would Jesus be a torturer? Would Jesus kidnap people?’ And that was sort of the idiom of the area–the protesters tended to be quite religious Christians, and the targets of the protests tended to be as well.

I think big city liberals don’t really get that–that the people who might be agreeing with them and might be their allies in more rural parts of the country may be very religious folks, and may even be evangelical Christians. They may be coming at it from a different point, but they’re getting to the same place.

There were regular, everyday people who were somehow participating in this program, whether it was working for the flight company or offering a front for the CIA. How do you understand their rationalizations for that?

You know, I don’t know so much. We ran up against a lot of roadblocks in figuring that out. What I can tell you is that the former pilot who we interviewed, who had worked for one of these front companies, basically said that the men involved as pilots are patriots and they are gung ho. Some of them have worked in law enforcement fields before–the DEA, the FBI, that sort of thing. None of them were particularly well compensated, but they realized that they were doing secret missions, they got a rush from that, and they felt good about serving their country. I think it’s only been more recently, as more and more has come out about just how they’re serving their country, that some of those guys are rethinking their commitment.

You heard some really terrifying stories of torture. Do any stick with you today? And were you surprised at all by what you heard, and that Americans were the perpetrators?

Look, this is the scene. When we went to Afghanistan, we went all over, trying to find as much evidence as we could about what the CIA was doing over there. In that trip, I went down to a town called Gardez, which is south of Kabul. It’s not a great place to go–it’s a pretty dangerous place. The governor of the area was suicide bombed a little while back; his funeral was blown up the next day–it’s a pretty sketchy place. Sitting there, in the same room with men who had been grabbed by US military forces and taken to detention centers and interrogated by Americans, listening to the stories they told, was absolutely horrifying. It was something that I was prepared for, but at the same time I wasn’t prepared for it.
I’ve been writing for many years about injustices and misdeeds, and humans doing bad to one another, but I found the stories these men told me tremendously chilling.

What about the continued denial by the Bush administration about our complicity in torture, and some of the strange legal memos that have been produced to basically allow them to say this?

There’s been a lot of convoluted legal reasoning and memoranda generated to justify what’s gone on, and to give it the veneer of legitimacy that the Bush administration would like it to have. So you can take that backwards from the Military Commissions Act, which the president recently signed into law, that basically says that everything we’ve been doing in recent years–grabbing people, keeping them incommunicado in secret facilities, and tormenting them–is OK, and that we can now take these people into a quasi-judicial proceeding under military laws, and try them. That sort of retroactively said all the bad we’ve done is now OK.

Before that, you had the Yoo, Bybee, and Gonzales memos that sort of did the same thing–they said that these extreme measures we’re taking with people are all good, they’re not a problem. I think that these are all things that are going to go down in American history — we’ll look back upon in the future and say, “I can’t believe that happened.” These will go down as very ignoble moments in American history.

Beyond that, what is interesting are the admissions that the Bush administration has made. They said — for years — that this isn’t going on. And then in early September, they said that actually, it has been going on, and we’ve kept a small number of people in secret facilities because we believe they’re very dangerous, and now we’re going to try to adjudicate 14 of these people through the military commissions.

But the other thing is, when the president put out that statement, he also didn’t say a lot of things. He said a small number of people have been grabbed. Most people who are looking at this don’t believe a small number have been grabbed, most think there are between 150 and several hundred abducted. When he says we’ll take these 14 people and try them, that gives the public the idea that this is a very miniscule program. Nobody besides George Bush believes that to be true. So even when there are these revelations, they’re shaded with what I believe is misinformation or disinformation.

How do you think the press has covered the torture flights and the victims? What more could both the mainstream and alternative press do?

I’ve been working in the alternative press for 10 years now, but I think that throughout the “war on terror,” the mainstream media has done the far better job, in general, in covering the war and its excesses and its truly awful aspects. They’ve done a better job covering that than the alternative press.

I think ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker have really done a tremendous job at covering these issues, as far as breaking stories that let us know what’s happening and what’s being done in our name. Now, I’m not convinced that they’ve done a great job in analyzing the import of these stories, of framing the debate and saying strongly enough, ‘Do we want to be a nation of torturers? Do we want to be a nation that tramples on human rights? Do we want to run around the world and kidnap people and cast them into dungeons? Do we want to return to the Middle Ages?’

I don’t believe that they’ve confronted the real heart of the issue in political or human rights terms. But in terms of breaking the stories, I think they’ve done a tremendous job–and that’s partially because a lot of these people have great intelligence sources. The alternative press has done some good work in framing the issues and commenting on the issues, but I think I’d like to see a lot more reporting and a lot more investigation out of the alternative press.

Why do you think there hasn’t been as much reporting and investigation coming out of the alternative press?

A lot of it is resources; a lot of it is being sourced up. It’s easy for an alternative press reporter to get sourced up on beats other than the military and the CIA–those are hard places for a lefty to penetrate. But also, it just takes time. The whole media business now is just geared toward generating constant copy, rather than spending time to do really hard-hitting, probative stories.

What do you think is the next piece of the rendition story? Are you still investigating this?

We’re probably going to do a second edition of the book that updates some of the material, and talks about the more recent developments. But that’s the thing about the program–it’s always mutating, it’s always morphing. The flight patterns are always changing. The locations seem to be changing. From what we can tell, the CIA is now moving people to different countries, it’s now opening facilities in different countries. Our suspicion is that people who were once held in, say, Eastern Europe, are now being flown to other regions. The story’s not over–not at all.

Do you think that this fall’s elections — and Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation — will have any effect on the program at all?

That’s an interesting question, because here’s my gripe: I feel like the Democrats have not, by and large, made an issue out of human rights, and they’ve not made an issue of the encroachment on our civil liberties in the elections. That doesn’t give me a ton of faith that they’re going to do the right thing in the coming weeks and say that we need to get a handle on this program and stop doing what we’re doing. I hope they do, but I’m not convinced that they will.

As far as Rumsfeld goes, he’s a military guy. His ouster may have very little impact on what the CIA does. But, as we found out in our research in Afghanistan, sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s doing just what — there seems to be an overlap between the CIA, the military, and the private military contractors. At times, they all seem to be working together, or at least their missions seem to intersect.

Do you think that people–from the writers of legal memos to CIA contractors — will ever be held accountable for their participation in this program?

I’m skeptical that anyone will ever be held responsible for these human rights abuses. Now, what’s interesting is that people have been targeted. The Italian government has criminally indicted several Americans who are CIA agents for their participation in abducting someone on Italian soil. That’s a huge story that’s gotten almost no press over here. I would hope that, if the evidence is there, that those men and women are tried, convicted and punished. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I would like to see that happen.

As far as the lawyers go, who have given the CIA cover, who have helped set up all these phony companies that allow the CIA to carry out its activities, there’s an interesting aspect to that. Lawyers are not supposed to lie. Their professional codes say that they are not supposed to be involved in deceit and deception. For example, one of the companies was set up in Nevada, and Nevada’s rules for lawyers say that, in the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law, or fail to disclose a material fact. I wonder whether some of these lawyers who have basically been lying on behalf of the CIA shouldn’t be brought up on charges before their respective state bars for doing that.

What can ordinary people do to help stop this program? What needs to be done to put this in the past?

There’s a precedent here for the American people pressuring their government to curb the excesses of the national police and intelligence agencies. In the 70s, the citizenry was very upset with the sort of craziness that the FBI and CIA were involved in — they pressured Congress, Idaho Sen. Frank Church convened numerous hearings that shed light on what the agencies were doing, and Congress put a bunch of curbs on what they could do.

It’s totally possible for people–if they feel compelled–to stop the serious human rights abuses that our country is engaged in, to pressure politicians from the local to the national level to actually make it an issue, to have hearings, and then to put some restraints on these people. There’s a million ways that you can be active on that, it’s just a question of whether you’re going to be. That’s what it’s going to take.

The CIA is not going to change its policies because a couple of news stories come out. The CIA is going to change its policies because the American people tell their government that they’re sick of what’s going on, and that it has to change.


This story was originally published by City Belt, New Jersey’s alternative, progressive newsmagazine.



Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is a Senior Reporter for The Appeal. Based in New Jersey, she writes on prison and jail conditions, wrongful convictions, and the criminalization of disabilities. Elizabeth has also written for The Nation, New York Focus, and TruthOut. Partnering with CoLAB Arts, she has written two interview-based plays, which have been performed in the Northeast—“Life, Death, Life Again: Children Sentenced to Die in Prison”and “Banished: A Family on the Sex Offender Registry.” She worked for eight years at the Innocence Project as a case analyst where her work was instrumental in several exonerations. She is the recipient, with journalist Juan Moreno Haines, of the 2020 California Journalism Awards Print Contest. They were awarded first place for At San Quentin, Overcrowding Laid The Groundwork For An Explosive COVID-19 Outbreak, in the category: Coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic – Fallout, weeklies, circulation 25,0001 and over.