Exposing the Black Sites Behind Extraordinary Rendition
A conversation with the two guys behind a new book about "extraordinary renditions", where governments illegally abduct their enemies and fly them home for interrogation.
Negative Publicity, a new book by investigator and journalist Crofton Black, and photographer Edmund Clark, offers a fascinating insight into the process of unearthing and documenting the extrajudicial arrests and interrogations that made up the covert "extraordinary rendition" system operated by the United States in the years after the September 11th attacks.
As explained in the quote from the Gibson, P. et al., Report of the Detainee Inquiry, UK Government, December 2013, at the book's opening, Extraordinary Rendition is a term "most commonly used to cover the extra-judicial transfer of an individual from one jurisdiction or state to another (as opposed to legally authorised methods of transfer such as extradition, deportation or removal; processes which are subject to some judicial process or right of appeal). Over the last ten years, the term 'extraordinary rendition' has been used to cover rendition where there is a real risk of torture or improper treatment."
Using one US-operated interrogation site in Lithuania as a case study that reappears in documents including flight plans, emails and legal proceedings, alongside Clark's discomfortingly sedate photos, Negative Publicity lays bare the "matrix of mundanity" that surrounded one of the most controversial processes to be born out of the "war on terror".
VICE: First off, how did you two come to work on this book together?
Edmund Clark: In 2011, while I was working on a body of work on Guantanamo Bay, I was in contact with Clive Stafford Smith at Reprieve and found out that they were doing work on extraordinary rendition. I met Crofton and discovered that was what he was also researching. I became interested in doing something on extraordinary rendition as a progression of my work on Guantanamo Bay.
Crofton Black: When he first came to me I'd been out in Lithuania, looking at this weird site – a warehouse that had been built in the woods in the middle of nowhere, on the site of a former riding school. I was building a court case around it, so when [Clark] got in touch I said, 'Oh, you should go to Lithuania and take some photos of this strange, peculiar place.' Which he did. After that we started formulating a more complex and ambitious scheme of trying to document the black-site network through documents, images and prose. We spent a long time working out how to fit it all together.
Clark: At first I was thinking of only focusing on this little hamlet in Lithuania, and the idea that this site of extraordinary geopolitical importance was in a former riding school in a forest. The idea developed and grew from that. I was talking to Crofton about what sorts of documents he had, which were really important, and he sent me loads of stuff to look at. Of course, I was looking at things in terms of what was visually impactful – how these documents transcend being bits of paper with information on them and become visual objects that told a story in themselves.
How did you decide to work your photos into that body of visual evidence?
There was a point at which I was thinking about not even using photographs. I was planning on visualising it all through documents, satellite imagery, found imagery... because what's the point in doing this worldwide photographic project about something where there's nothing to see? But then I think the photographs developed from the straightforward need to have imagery, which offered a counterpoint to what is some very dense documentation in the book. The act of taking the photos eventually became almost the point for me – even if all I could do was take a photo of a façade, I went there. That became a sort of act of testimony, and an act of reconstructing part of this network, of visualising it.
Was it odd for you, Crofton, to have to think of your work in this visual, artistic way?
Black: I wanted to make the book in order to be able to do just that. I was aware that I had all this material, that there were remarkable stories and images and documents that were bizarre, and spoke beyond what was immediately visible in them. I knew I wanted to do something with it that was less dry than legal cases, which are quite dull. There was an opportunity to do something that spoke to a different, and bigger, audience.
You mentioned the Lithuanian site. It's the key location in the book, and chapter-to-chapter it pops up again and again. Why did you select that site to serve as a sort of narrative thread for the book?
It's the site that has the most personal resonance for me. It's the one that I've worked the most on and one I developed from the ground up, more or less. Lots of other cases I picked up halfway through then ran with. But when I started on the Lithuania case there was almost nothing, aside from an ABC News piece that claimed there was a rendition site in Lithuania. There was no evidence, no documents, no planes. Historically, plane tracking has been the way people investigated rendition. It was the way to tie people to certain countries. But when you got to Lithuania, there were no planes. None of the data that had been compiled by anyone had any planes going through Lithuania – it was a black hole. I set out to fill that hole. Of course, it's also such an odd story...
Yes – the idea of this pristine, modern, windowless building popping up almost overnight, behind awnings, next to this tiny, rural hamlet.
Imagine how weird it would be if you grew up in that village! Of all the strange events that this aspect of the war on terror has created, this one – for me – was one of the strangest.
Clark: I found it compelling. Crofton is right – it was, in a way, the centre of this whole situation – a nondescript hamlet, 45 minutes from Vilnius. One thing we tried to do with this book was to show that this process wasn't something exotic handled by the government or the CIA; it was outsourced to small companies, taking place in these unremarkable places. Places which are incredibly ordinary. The extension of that is that our airports were used, our airspace – we are all implicated, all complicit in this, because it was happening in our world.
That ties into something else I really got from the book. From the photos of the pools in hotels where pilots stayed, down to the documents and invoices – they offer hints about the very normal people involved. I think when people think of "extraordinary rendition" they think of that sort of Zero Dark Thirty black-ops world. But this book lays bare the tawdriness of reality. Was demystifying the process a key aim?
Black: Obviously, post-Hannah Arendt, "the banality of evil" has become a standardised phrase. For me, one of the places you see it most strongly is in bureaucracy: in these documents, in the way they are written, the way certain forms of interrogation are described, or flight routes are detailed. I wanted to make that point. None of these things would be possible without a complex bureaucratic system enabling them. In theory, the idea of a bureaucracy is that everything has its place and gets done by the right person. But in practice it often means that no one is responsible for anything. And that's what we found in Eastern Europe – no one was responsible. There's no one in Poland or Lithuania who is responsible for any of this stuff!
Clark: That's something we wanted to bring out: the ordinariness, the banality of it all. When she spoke of the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt was talking about the bureaucracy of National Socialism. Here, we are talking about a mosaic of small companies – small to medium enterprises – earning a buck.
I remember one email with an emoticon in it. In the context of interrogation – and, by extension, torture – it was extremely strange to see.
Yes, there was another email when someone talked about changing the flight itinerary to make sure it passed the "giggle-test". People knew what they were doing. Or did they...? Did they know what they were carrying? Who it was? The court case in the book is not a case about anything more than a payment dispute. A squabble over how much was paid for a certain amount of hours a plane was in the air. It's nothing to do with the person who was the cargo, [and doesn't say] they were subject to extrajudicial detention and transportation to be interrogated. That just doesn't come up. So yes – it's banal. The pictures are, at times, banal. Some of the sites were banal to document. And the paper trail of bureaucracy is also, at times, banal. But it does raise ethical questions that are quite profound.
The reproduction of the paper trails you followed, and the notes accompanying them, form a large part of the book. One thing I almost found reassuring was that this paper trail did exist. Even the US government has to file all these invoices.
Black: Most of the paperwork in the book is from other entities or other countries. If they wanted to have an entirely secret prison system, they shouldn't have invented one that involved flying prisoners all over the world. You simply can't fly a plane from A to B without leaving a gigantic paper trail. You just can't, otherwise planes would be bumping into each other. They could have just held their 119 prisoners in Afghanistan and we would probably have found it an awful lot more difficult to find out about it. But the peculiarities of how they wanted – or, at times, were forced to – use different locations... that made it detectable.
There's a part in the book where you, Edmund, talk about the difficulty of deciding whether or not to publish a photo you took of the private home of someone involved in this process. What are your gut feelings about where the buck stops in this insane, Kafkaesque bureaucracy?
It's something we have thought about a lot. We took the decision in producing this book that we weren't going to publish any names that had not already been published elsewhere. We could easily have included more. In that respect, of course, we have redacted our own work.
Clark: Where does the buck stop? I think with our governments, with those individuals involved in the process who possibly knew what they were doing. And, in some way, the buck stops with all of us, because it's being done in our names, and probably on the basis of it being the least of all possible evils. And that's not a justification. I would parallel it with control orders in the UK, where it's now possible for the government to detain people without any due legal process. That's overturned 800 years of habeas corpus. You can now hold people without legal process based on secret evidence; is that actually for the greater good? To that extent, we all deal with that buck.
Negative Publicity is out now, published by Aperture & Magnum Foundation.
A selection of works from Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition will go on display for the first time in the UK at a forthcoming free exhibition at IWM London, running from the 28th of July, 2016 to the 28th of August, 2017. The show will bring together several series of Edmund Clark's recent work, including Control Order House and Section 4 Part 20: One Day on a Saturday, to explore hidden experiences of state control, touching on issues of security, legality and ethics during the "Global War on Terror".