The Talking Dog

December 10, 2006, TD Blog Interview with Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen is currently a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the co-author (with A.C. Thompson) of "Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA Rendition Flights", the first book to systematically investigate the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, whereby suspected terrorists are simply kidnapped by the CIA without trial or any due process whatsoever and frequently detained and interrogated (invariably under torture), either by the CIA itself or by cooperative third countries. Messrs. Paglen and Thompson ostensibly "reverse engineered" the program using data collected by "planespotters", accounts of those few men who have been released from the CIA "black prison" network and foreign dungeons in such locations as Afghanistan, Morocco, Syria and elsewhere, and through investigating stateside CIA front companies, from rural airfields in North Carolina to suburban law offices in Massachusetts and Nevada. Mr. Paglen's academic interests include "black sites" (secret military bases) and prison expansion. On December 7, 2006, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Paglen by telephone; what follows are my interview notes, corrected as appropriate by Mr. Paglen.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on September 11th?

Trevor Paglen: At that time, I was a graduate student at the School of Art Institute in Chicago. I was teaching a multi-media class. I was having coffee before teaching a class, and a friend came up to me and told me that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me (briefly) about your work about secret military bases? And can you tell me (briefly) about your prisons project(s)?

Trevor Paglen: The base project will be the subject of a new book devoted to the entire history of what people in the defense industry and military call "the black world"-- the collection of people, programs, projects and places whose existences are secret. Basically, the “black world” is the totality of programs funded by what’s called the “black budget” – the discrepancies between the published totals of the defense budget versus the sum of the line items. It’s about $30 billion annually. The project is a historical and geographical look at this "world".

As to the prisons, I had done a big project on the California prison system in the late 1990s, and the early part of the 21st century. I was trying to come to terms with California having incarcerated over 175,000 people, the 3rd largest prison system on Earth. This is a giant operation, largely invisible to most people, yet entirely enmeshed in our lives. The project ended up being a series of articles and visual projects.

The Talking Dog: In my earlier life (high school, actually, circa 1979) I did some work (at an undisclosed university in Terre Haute, Indiana) in remote sensing using data generated by Landsat (Landsat 1 and 2, IIRC), and other civilian satellites, that I am told, were turned off when they flew over the USSR (and I was told that the Soviets did the same with their civilian data satellites). My rudimentary project was to search for oil shale deposits in the Mountain West... If they're there, they remain undisturbed by any discoveries I made! I'd imagine that the data then available from the early Landsats was pretty primitive compared with what's now available-- then, data points were, 50, 100 meters apart in the pixellated image you got... one could recognize vague outlines from afar ("if you look carefully, you'll see Lake Erie."). Also part of that work involved airplane photos, and some airplane radar images, which were, of course, much better, though they covered a much smaller area and were much more expensive and hence limited. Now, we have Google satellite and other things; can you tell me what tools are PUBLICLY available for an individual interested in looking at a given location somewhere, and can you tell me what additional tools might be available to, say, the military or intelligence communities to do the same? To what extent are the "black areas", i.e., military bases, prisons, etc., still discernible from this "remote sensing" perspective, and how dependent are we on, for example, your "photo-stakeouts" from relatively nearby, for information on this.

Trevor Paglen: The technology in this area has improved incredibly. Commercial one-meter resolution imagery is now widely available, and quite inexpensive. There are programs like Google Earth or Microsoft Terra-surfer that are widely available. Keep in mind, however, that image resolution is not just a measure of meters per pixel... there is a time issue as well. These programs are not good for temporal resolution-- looking at the development of the same site over the course of time. For that kind of data-- the historical, we still go back to older historical satellite data (of the variety you've described) and aerial photo archives when available.

The Talking Dog: One of the sources of information from your book is "planespotters" and I suppose comparable "hackers", or at least, hobbyists interested in observing things. Much of this activity takes place in the US and Western Europe. Was there much plane spotting in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East?

Trevor Paglen: To be sure, much of the data does come from "planespotters" in the United States and even more from planespotters in Europe. But something very interesting has happened. It's certainly a big hobby in the United Kingdom, and in Western Europe. A lot of guys who have this hobby actually work in the aviation industry. What has happened is that they are frequently stationed around the world, often in jobs either in, or at least supporting, the military. And they continue to do their work, and their hobby, even after they are sent over there. So what has happened is that we end up with some very good data from these transplants in locations where they are "following the wars around." We got some very interesting data from planespotters posted in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

The Talking Dog: I note that the CIA rendition flights included such places as Somalia, Sudan and Libya, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, and so forth. Given these shadowy relationships, one question is whether you see any real possibility for actual political pressure on issues like Darfur if we're involved in back door relations of this kind with Sudan, (such as transporting their intelligence officers to Washington in "the torture plane" and other CIA executive jets) for example? I take it this is something of which the public knows virtually nothing...correct?

Trevor Paglen: No question that the American public seems to know nothing about any of this. The European public is much better informed. One of the things about the flight data is that every flight represents some sort of hidden or unacknowledged relationship. These planes are used to hide these relationships. One of them, as you point out, is a flight from Sudan to Baltimore using these CIA planes. It turns out that the head of the Sudanese intelligence service, a guy named Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh (not a nice guy, I can assure you), was probably on that plane. It turns out that the Sudan was holding secret talks with the CIA.

The Talking Dog: In your work on "black sites", you've noted the racial and inequality element-- for example, in our country, black sites in the USA tend to be oblivious of nearby Native Americans, behaving as if they're not there, and willy nilly occupying space, spewing pollutants, and so forth, and in other countries, like the former Belgian Congo, more or less follow good old colonialism. You also noted a pervasive racist tie to militarism-- i.e. our enemy has to be somehow LESS than us... I take it you believe that this is a huge element of the rendition flights-- we're not kidnapping Caucasian Anglos to Egypt and Syria-- but swarthy Moslems from the Middle East and North Africa... isn't this a key part of the game-- both to internally justify it among the participants and to the public when and if caught? BTW... hasn't this been a hugely successful component of the PR associated with the "war on terror"?

Trevor Paglen: There is definitely a relationship between "black sites" and doing the sort of things that are being done to people who are "not White". Warfare, and in particular colonial warfare, has everything to do with racism -- your enemy is somehow less than human, God is on YOUR side, and not theirs. I’m not sure that we’d be able to have all of these extra-legal designations like “enemy combatants” and “ghost detainees” if there weren’t a structure of racism underlying this “war on terror.” Racism certainly doesn’t explain the whole structure, but the structure of the war on terror is certainly built upon some assumptions that wouldn’t be possible without racism.

The Talking Dog: You've pointed out that vast swathes of this country are "black spots" on maps, not merely offical military bases in remote areas, but often, buildings and compounds in the middle of cities... further, the CIA (or the "Other Government Agency") seems to be operating a fleet of open civilian aircraft and black prisons (the "Salt Pit", the "Dark Prison", and evidently, around 20 sites in Afghanistan, etc.with covers weak enough that you have effectively broken some of them (Aero Conctractors of Smithfield, NC for one, whose officers include the non-existent "Colleen Bornt", Crowell, Tepper, Premier, and other successors to "Air America"). I understand that there are a whole lot of gerry-rigged legal reasons why the CIA does it this way-- it can claim the host government is doing these things and not it, than for example, if it took foreign prisoners to the Nevada desert. I guess I'll ask a two-part question-- to what extent is the CIA just "not as good" as it once was (if it was ever that good) at keeping secrets (or does it just have so much more to keep secret that more is just going to leak out by the sheer scale of it all), and the other is your understanding of the legal and/or historical legal reasons for why this particular rendition structure emerged. Can you comment on any of that?

Trevor Paglen: There are a couple of answers to this. It's true that the CIA is a civilian agency, and as such, is not subject to the same kind of strict chains of command that the military itself is, or subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Let's face it: the CIA was created to do illegal things. The military is not. The military is very regulated, formal and is subject to strict rules. The CIA was created to be covert, i.e., not to be subject to strict and formal rules! While a big part of the CIA is gathering intelligence, another big part is covert action, which, frankly, is basically illegal. To do this kind of action, it is better to be a civilian agency: you don't have to abide by rules. Further, unlike the military, you can hide in plain sight... CIA personnel can masquerade as embassy employees, academics, corporate employees...

The Talking Dog: Or journalists...

Trevor Paglen: Or journalists. Civilian companies can take advantage of the Chicago Convention on aviation-- they can basically fly wherever they want-- again hiding in plain site. No one will bat an eye if a corporate jet lands at Dulles Airport... or at Karachi Airport in Pakistan. What we are seeing is a contradiction between the secrecy necessary to the agency's actions and the openness necessary to operate in our society. In the aviation area, they have to deal with civilian air traffic controllers, they have to file registrationa of ownership, incorporation papers, flight plans... it's all one of the downsides of being a civilian agency (using corporate covers and the like): the civilian world leaves a publicly-accessible paper trail. Add something like an aviation company – which is a highly regulated industry – and you start to generate a pretty extensive trail of your activities..

This paper trail allows us to identify certain activity-- and this is, of course, part of the contradiction at the very core of how the CIA operates. It also leads us to quite a bit of the geography involved in their activity... just following these paper trails, as we did.

To be sure, the CIA screws up all the time, leading to further revelations. We can tell that certain activities are very fishy on their face... a case in point seems to be the situation of how the agents behaved in Italy with respect to the Abu Omar kidnapping.

The Talking Dog: In an interview, your co-author A.C. Thompson suggested that if and when the American people actually believed, by and large, that torture wasn't something we should do, then (and I would add and only then) would the pressure mount to stop doing it. In an interview with me, Dr. Steven Miles suggested that one of the victims of torture was society itself-- a torturing society is a degraded one, at all levels. To what extent do you believe that the public, by and large, can STILL be quickly be dispatched with "yes, but these are bad people and potential terrorists who mean us harm, so anything we do to get information from them to protect your families and your children is, however unfortunately, justified"?

Trevor Paglen: This is a tricky area. I actually disagree with my co-author on this one: public outrage against torture is certainly a precondition to stopping it, but, I don't believe it will be enough to stop it.

I think that it’s very difficult for us to have a national debate on something like the rendition program, because our everyday language isn’t really set up to deal with things like disappearances, ghosts, unacknowledged locations and the like. We’re used to thinking in binary terms: guilt or innocence, soldier or civilian, for example. The rendition program, and the war on terror more generally, is set up in such a way as to thwart these linguistic or epistemological norms.

The program is set up so that is not about "innocent or guilty"-- there is no process of a "trial" (or socially accepted mechanism for determining guilt.) These people are all outside of that. What we have to do is recognize this for what it is: not even as much for what it means to the victims of all this (those that we "disappear" and kidnap and torture...) but so much about what it does to us when we become inured and indeed, comfortable about all of these situations.

The Talking Dog: Congress has now more or less gone along and institutionalized torture and its use in the Military Commissions Act (along with stripping habeas corpus). How important do you think it is that the new, Democratically controlled Congress, try to reverse this? Do you see any real public outcry, or political pressure to do so?

Trevor Paglen: This is a hard question. Yesterday, Arlen Spector and Pat Leahy introduced a bill that they called the "habeas corpus restoration act." I find it hard to see this as a big step forward. It actually makes me very nervous that this is a "progressive" idea... that in the year 2006, we are debating the applicability of a convention that has been fundamental to modern notions of justice since at least the 13th Century.

And then there is the question of whether it will even pass. It is certainly hard to divine the future, but the problem with things like the Military Commissions Act and similar laws is that once done, things like that are very often hard to undo; indeed, history shows that it is very hard to undo things like that.

Note what the Bush Administration did earlier this year with the 14 "high value" terror suspects from the black sites when it moved them to Guantanamo Bay. It was both ingenious and chilling. The Administration issued a challenge to Congress, and to the American people. Every one knows that Khalid Sheik Mohammed is a bad guy. The choice was that the government could leave him incommunicado, and continue torturing him... or to find a way to try him and imprison him. But evidence obtained from him is tainted by illegal things,,, so to put him on trial, it was necessary to retroactively legalize what was already done to him!

That's extraordinarily frightening: a government that says-- either institutionalize and legitimize torture, or we will release an extremely dangerous terrorist. And yet, this seems to be the whole basis of how the war on terror is being conducted.

The Talking Dog: A lot of the raw data for your book was done by "plane spotters" and other hobbyists, and I take it some was publicly available from the FAA and other government agencies; I take it that you are a member of this particular (planespotting) hobbyist community? Can you tell me what led you to investigate this particular collection of data?

Trevor Paglen: I don’t want to overemphasize the importance of these planespotters, because the kinds of data that they collect can be quite limited, actually. More important is the investigative paradigm that something like planespotting suggests. The hobby represents a certain way of looking at systems and an approach towards decoding them. That paradigm was very useful.

The idea of following airplanes around – not only to their flight destinations – but also looking at their histories, ownership records, maintenance records and that sort of thing was very powerful. It allowed us to begin describing this global geography that was largely invisible but was nevertheless possible to decode.

You can find a great deal of data when you look closely at airplanes. When you look at flight records, for example, you get a certain historical-geographical record. An outline of sorts. If you then start getting other sources of data - accounts of former rendition victims, for example – you can use the flight patterns as a basic framework that you can correlate to other pieces of information. With a lot of patience, some larger stories begin to emerge.

The Talking Dog: I have read a description of you as an "outlaw academic;" right now, you are a Ph.D. geography candidate at Berkeley, you have an MFA from the Chicago Fine Arts Institute... your other academic or artistic interests seem to be efforts to map America's vast prison system and America's vast military base network, particularly the secret ones... I take it that the rendition program is something that is kind of a culmination of all of it... all of your concerns that we are becoming a culture with whom mass imprisonment (around 1% of the population at any given time) and vast military secrecy (billions of dollars and lots of people and space) are becoming enmeshed and "regular"-- the banality of evil, or the evil of banality... doesn't it all come together in the rendition program? In some sense, HAS our "extraordinary rendition" and other programs (like abusing Jose Padilla and others politically convenient to do so) become SO enmeshed that to most people the rendition program is not such a big deal...? Can you comment on that?

Trevor Paglen: No question that this is an area where all of my work comes together. At Berkeley, my thesis advisor brought me an article in the Washington Post about the rendition program, the secret prisons and the black sites-- which used the term black sites, not then in regular parlance... when he told me, I let him know I had already been working on it for quite a long time without really telling anyone in the department.

As to the next part of your question, there is no question that all of this is fully institutionalized and enmeshed into our society. Now, there is a big difference, however, as to whether this is a big deal to most people, or whether this is "what the state does". It certainly is what the state does-- and the state keeps doing it. In this case, what the state does now includes rendition and outright torture (either itself, or through cooperative assistance of other states.) I'm not sure about the public's acquiescence in this. Remember-- all of this is compounded by the utter secrecy of the programs. Indeed, secrecy is absolutely critical to its maintenance. When we’re talking about state power, as Max Weber pointed out a long time ago, secrecy tends to justify itself.

The Talking Dog: I've read (and when I say that, most of what I read is linked to on your own web-site) that around 40% of the professional geographers (though apparently none of the Arabic translators) in this country work for the CIA. So that means that there is a 2 in 5 chance your colleagues at Berkeley do, and indeed, you might (possibly without even knowing it!); you DO point out that military guys tend to be some of the most interested in your work about secret bases, as even they are usually kept in the dark! (I do not, though I should point out that when I drove down to Washington a few weeks ago and passed NSA h.q. at Ft. Meade, Maryland, I wanted to stop by and introduce myself, noting that "you guys are my biggest fans!") I guess my question is whether this enmeshing-- of the CIA into your profession, of a CIA front into every day life at rural Smithfield, NC, of the military into vast swathes of our geography (such as virtually all of metropolitan San Diego, CA) and prisons and military bases everywhere... make it that much harder, even in our supposed free society (even as surveililance cameras pop up all over "public" space) to get anyone excited about any particular aspect, or "little picture" slice of a few communities being involved in the very gruesome business of aiding the international kidnapping of uncharged, untried men for torture in Middle Eastern dungeons, given what the big picture now is? Can you comment further on your thoughts about this "ordinary" geography-- suburban law firms, rural airfields and so forth?

Trevor Paglen: You have two questions there, one concerning the every day nature of "the geography", and one about the profession of geography. Let me take them in order.

What you see when you take a look at this is that there are landscapes involved that are not just "over there". The torture and kidnappings are facilitated here: we have mirror images here, and not just in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and "there", but an invisible world woven into our every day life-- air fields, divorce lawyers, even Phillip Morse, the owner of the Boston Red Sox whose airplane-- complete with the removable Red Sox logo that will transport the Sox to the World Series on one day, and take men to be tortured in the Middle East the next-- in short, an entire infrastructure that facilitates the entire process.

As to the geography profession, we certainly have a huge percentage of professional geographers employed by the CIA, or perhaps the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office... Indeed, there are schools that feed straight into them (Berkeley is not one of them, by the way.) Still at meetings of academic geographers, you’ll always find agencies like the NGA handing out literature and making recruiting efforts right at the meetings. Geography teaches skills that are very useful for the work of these agencies. And there is another very significant reason for this as well: our economy is oriented and directed toward defense; there is a great deal of money in this area. This is what Eisenhower warned about with respect to the military industrial complex. Military spending is a basis for huge portions and organizing principles of our economy. When you look at where the jobs are for geographers, you find two big employers: the intelligence establishment, and the oil industry.

The Talking Dog: Even though it has been caught dead to rights in some cases, and sued in at least two (Al-Masri in Washington, and Arar, Arar right here in Brooklyn), the government still gets away with it in court as federal judges invoke national security, state secrets, etc., and toss the cases out on dubious grounds that will doubtless be affirmed... still, the public outcry is... limited... As you and A.C. Thompson (and Stephen Grey in his book "Ghost Plane", Dana Priest in her work at the WaPo, and others) and doubtless there will be more and more coming out on this... other than changing plane registration numbers and moving ghost prisons about (apparently no longer operating in Romania and Poland)... I guess the question is "where do we go from here?" Congress changed hands, but the DEMOCRATS sport two new members who bore the rank of Admiral, and hardly seemed primed to do anything about this... Do you have any thoughts?

Trevor Paglen: Interestingly, there are huge investigations in Europe, right now (though there is virtually nothing of the kind going on here.) There is the Italian investigation regarding the rendition/kidnap of Abu Omar. In Germany, there is a similar investigation with respect to Al-Masri. The Council of Europe and the European Parliament are both investigating these rendition matters (and European government cooperation), though the EU bodies lack subpoena power. But details of the programs are coming out, and over time, only more will come out. That details emerge does not in and of itself mean that these programs and activities will change, though it is certainly a precondition of such change.

In the United States, of course, we're not even having the conversation. While Senator Carl Levin has promised hearings on the rendition program, we don't know what that means, or whether it will change anything. For all of this to change, we’d need something on a vast scale: something akin to the Church and Pike committee hearings-- ostensibly an overhaul that ended up cleaning the CIA's closet, which led to serious staff changes, activity changes, and things like FISA and the FISA court. Cheney and Rumsfeld, of course, would and have opposed this, insisting that the CIA needs to have extraordinary power to do what it does... but something dramatic needs to be done at this point to rein this in.

The Talking Dog: Anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or that the American public should know about your work on tracking the rendition program, or your other work?

Trevor Paglen: When we’re talking about torture, there’s kind of a cliche which says that torture transforms not merely the torture victim, but the torturer as well through the act of torture. We can extrapolate that to our society as a whole. Let's think about who our society has changed by all this-- through the now routine disappearing and torturing of significant numbers of people. We actually have seen "debates" about torture coming from people like Alan Dershowitz who think we should legally authorize torture with judge issued torture warrants. We're having a DEBATE about the LEGITIMACY OF TORTURE. If you take a step back for a moment, this looks absolutely crazy. Torture is one of the very few things where there is universal agreement, and international law reflects this. It is never allowed under any circumstancees whatsoever. The conventions against torture are totally unambiguous. There are no exceptions, period. We need to take cognizance of this. The fact that there is even a debate on this subject, shows that we have indeed changed, and dramatically so. And this is, in a word, horrifying.

The Talking Dog: We'll let that be the last word. I join all my readers in thanking Mr. Paglen for that eye-opening interview. I commend interested readers to take a look at "Torture Taxi".

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainee Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, and with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy to be of interest.


I read The Secret Team which I found on wikipedia and downloaded. It's lengthy,and dated, but gives an interesting and detailed picture of the organization and structure of the CIA. Your Paglen interview is consistent with The Secret Team. I quite agree - it's horrifying!

Posted by richard stearns at December 14, 2006 7:00 PM

I read The Secret Team which I found on wikipedia and downloaded. It's lengthy,and dated, but gives an interesting and detailed picture of the organization and structure of the CIA. Your Paglen interview is consistent with The Secret Team. I quite agree - it's horrifying!

Posted by richard stearns at December 14, 2006 7:01 PM