By Jakob Sergei Weitz
From the 2001 declaration of the war on terror until 2008, an unknown number of people disappeared into a secret network of “Black Site” prisons and holding cells organized by the CIA. In March 2009, a seemingly normal breach of contract court case involving an aviation company, Richmor Aviation, and a flight broker, Sportsflight Air, revealed details of shadowy CIA flights.
This case would become the crux of a collaborative effort between counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black and photographer Edmund Clark, culminating in their book, Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Renditions. They used invoices and contract obligations to begin a journey to confront the invisible mechanisms of state control; the hidden, dangerous tactics of modern warfare; and the torture and detainment of often innocent people who the CIA suspected were terrorists.
Transfer of a person into custody without record, legal process, or direct accountability is known as extraordinary rendition. The American people became aware that this practice, as well as the torture that went with it, was used by the CIA on “possible terror suspects” through the Feinstein Report, a document compiled in 2012 by the Senate Intelligence Committee on possible illegal activities done by the CIA under the guise of the war on terror. However, what was not clear was how these renditions were carried out and who supplied the logistical support necessary for them to occur.
Enter Crofton Black. In 2011, he located the 1,500 page case file of Richmor Aviation v. Sportsflight Air Inc. In it, through the weak points of business accountability, he found a wealth of information: payment chains, contracts, task orders, invoices, tracking numbers; a trove of material that opened up the whole organization of the CIA’s rendition program. Before the contents of this case file came to light, it was known that private sector companies were involved, but the story lacked specificity, detail, and modus operandi. This was a glimpse at the whole skeleton of the process.
The trail led Black to the small, sleepy village of Antaviliai, Lithuania, where a windowless, white warehouse had been built secretly in the remains of an old riding club. The local inhabitants had no idea what it had been used for between its construction in March 2004 and its lapse in 2007. They thought maybe it was a drug ring, or perhaps a place where organ donors were prepared. The villagers were baffled by the presence of foreign guards and cars with tinted windows arriving and departing.
But by connecting flight records from the Richmor case and eyewitness testimonies, it was obvious what it had actually been: a CIA detainment site. Using the flight itineraries of Aircraft N83VM, the infamous Richmor Gulfstream jet that was contracted by the CIA, Black was able to find the locations of hidden prisons and torture sites, identities of prisoners, and the American companies that shuttled them around the globe.
Edmund Clark followed this paper trail with his camera, taking haunting photos of the stillness left in these places’ wakes. Traveling worldwide, Clark photographed former detention sites, detainees and collaborators’ homes, and government locations. One of the first images of the book is a two-page spread of the white, windowless warehouse in Antaviliai—a ghost of a building surrounded by trees and silence, hinting in its eeriness what happened within it. Following Black’s trail, Clark adds images to the cold documentation, showing the reality behind the words, the destinations behind the invoices, the black sites behind the redactions.
One of the most striking aspects of the revelations of the book and the photographs is the intimate detail of the small-town, everyday American companies—and individuals—that were enlisted by the CIA for extraordinary rendition transport. One of the photos is an image of the headquarters of Computer Sciences Corporation, a shell company usedby the CIA to book flights through Richmor Aviation with little to no prior notice. The building itself looked just like thousands of business parks all around the U.S., but inside its walls kidnapping and extradition was planned and executed.
Another series of photographs presents the suburban homes of the pilots. They depict normal, residential communities where commercial pilots reside—except that these pilots flew flights under contract with the CIA, transporting “government officials and their invitees,” codeword for prisoners and their guards, to black site prisons.
A question raised by the book is if these ordinary people deserve any blame for the renditions. Without a doubt, Black says, they knew they were transporting prisoners. They may not have known the details of their capture and the fate that awaited them at these sites, but the managers, crews, and pilots were aware of their cargo. The book leaves this answer up to the viewer, presenting only documentation and still photographs.
Clark and Black, using facsimiles of the documents and photographs of the locations, recreate the network linking black sites to the American companies that supported the CIA’s illicit activities. The reader is forced to think about the opacity of the U.S. government, and the system born out of our fear of the other. Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition raises fundamental questions about responsibility and complicity through the lens of the war on terror.
Find out more information about the book here.
Read former ACLU Artist-in-Residence Rajkamal Kahlon’s article on the deeper meanings of death certificates and autopsy reports of ill-treated Iraqi and Afghani men from the Bush and Obama administrations.
Jakob Sergei Weitz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Original photo courtesy of Joseph Bourdon, image design by Jakob Sergei Weitz]