Trevor Paglen & A.C. Thompson
Yeah I don’t like the title either but this is an interesting book. Paglen, an “expert on clandestine military installations,” & Thompson, an award-winning journalist for the SF Weekly & the Bay Guardian, follow the trail of the planes involved in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The CIA is a civil service & works through front companies that have to actually exist in the public world. Existence for a company leads to a paper trail of addresses & lawyers. Buying planes leads to a paper trail through the FAA. These two reporters attempt to follow the paper trail. They carve out a small part of the hidden program & attempt to find out as much about it as they can. Since you haven’t heard about this book on 60 Minutes you can probably guess that they didn’t discover a world-shaking revelation. Instead this book is more about the odd line where information & secrecy meet.
Much of the initial information on the planes used in extraordinary rendition, the CIA program of transporting terrorism suspects to third party countries for torture, came not from radicals, intelligence experts or anonymous sources, but from “aviation enthusiasts.” Planespotters. People who hang around airports, record flight data & publish in chatrooms online. Why do they do it? Who knows? It’s a hobby. And yet they began to find out some weird stuff. And the reporters started to piece together their weird findings into a weird network & pretty soon the transportation that is involved in the extraordinary rendition—one of the only parts of the program with an unclassified public sector paper trail—becomes traceable.
As Paglen & Thompson follow the corporate paper trails they discover a series of ghost-identities & small-time lawyers who are unwilling to speak about the companies. As they & other journalists investigate & publish about the planes, the companies fold, the planes are sold to other front companies. The facts of the situation fluctuate & falter. By the end of the book they are left with little more knowledge than when they started but a greater understanding of the nebulous corporate surface of the extraordinary rendition program. Like anything involving the public face of intelligence agencies it reveals a form of truth that is always contingent & reactive. With a fluid set of facts almost any speculative theory could be built & it is to the credit of Paglen & Thompson that they refuse to speculate, instead presenting only the facts available to them.
They make a useful point in their conclusion: despite the fact that most of the public knowledge of extraordinary rendition comes from people who’d been plucked from ordinary lives, with no terroristic intents, many of the people involved in the program are the kind of international super-villain terrorists that the program was created to fight. That they are “guilty.” But they go on:
Nonetheless, when one is talking about disappearing people, about torturing people, about holding people incommunicado at secret locations throughout the world, one cannot make sensible distinctions between innocence and guilt. Those are legal terms, and in a world of black sites, disappearances, waterboarding, Salt Pits, and Dark Prisons, words like guilt and innocence are misapplied. Indeed, in the absence of law, guilt and innocence become meaningless, even misleading.
All of this, of course, points to the crucial and corrupting consequences of the extraordinary rendition program, for the legalistic and moral assumptions underlying the program sculpt a world in which everything is permitted.
It might seem like an attempt to distinguish the existential experience into frameworks of ideas and language, but this basic idea of guilt and innocence is fundamental to any concept of an ethical enforcement of law. An enforcement that functions without this fundament is not working to progress a legal system. And it is this kind of question that this book brings up fruitfully—how can we see the enforcement of a federal program as right or wrong, where does the line between truth & falsehood lie. When people react to relational systems of ethics they often see them as idealized constructs, more fitting for academic readings than applications to the facts of the world but it seems to me that one can only properly understand the ethical & epistemological nature of what Torture Taxi presents through a framework of thinking that is importantly in flux.
You can read/hear a Democracy Now interview with the two authors here.