Torture Taxi: Extraordinary Rendition in the Crosshairs

Authors Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson

Authors Paglen and Thompson

Back in late 2001, Swedish police had arrested Mohamed al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza as suspected terrorists and were in a hurry to deport them rather than have them claim refugee status. Lacking their own logistics of rapid deportation, the Swedes welcomed the offer from a US-based plane operator to make available a Gulfstream jet marked N379P. The plane’s hooded US crew picked up its unwilling passengers and flew them to Egypt, where both were detained, interrogated and tortured. Two years later al-Zery was released without charges; in a closed-door trial, Agiza was convicted to 25 years in prison for membership in an outlawed Islamic organization.(1)

Since then, the pattern of detaining suspects and flying them off in planes shrouded in secrecy to countries where they can be tortured without impunity has become a standard procedure in the US-led war on terror. Personal rights are suspended on the US government’s clandestine extraordinary rendition flights, or "Torture Taxis", as Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson call the planes in their new book. "Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights" is an investigative journey into the surreal world of Washington’s hidden torture sites around the world.

While the US has always used the CIA to track down, abduct or kill foreigners it perceived to be national security threats, after 9/11 the practice was greatly expanded in terms of number of captured suspects. Furthermore, many suspects are now being transferred to third countries rather than to the US. There, people are often interrogated under torture for the purpose of extracting information. Justice is no longer of concern under this US-instigated and funded program of "extraordinary rendition."

From Wikipedia.orgJournalist A.C. Thompson and military geographer Trevor Paglen have systematically investigated the CIA program for more than two years. Part investigation and eyewitness account, part documentary and recording of disparate incidents, "Torture Taxi" is a shocking and thorough account of US Government initiated and sanctioned crimes. The book uncovers a chain of events that has led mostly younger men of Arab descent to being abducted, disappeared and tortured at the behest of the CIA. About a dozen black-and-white photographs, mostly by co-author Paglen, illustrate some of the hidden associations.

In a 2006 interview conducted by Onnesha Roychoudhuri, the authors explain how the book is conceived as a travel diary. They showed up at the addresses on the paper trail they had unearthed and followed leads and evidence. To piece it all together the authors went to unlikely places such as Desert Rock Airstrip, Nevada and Smithfield, North Carolina, traveled to Kabul and Gardez in Afghanistan. From paper trail to plane-spotter blogs to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight logs and testimony of former prisoners in Afghanistan, they succeed to gradually piece together an exposure of the rendition program.(2)

The logistics of carrying out the extraordinary rendition program are sophisticated. Equally complex webs of legal deceit and dubious business practices are cast to try and keep the rendition program out of the media spotlight. Front companies in suburban towns like Dedham, Massachusetts allow the CIA to operate formally legitimate businesses such as Premier Executive Transport services. Premier can go about its business of making available Gulfstream jets to the CIA rendition program, in broad daylight or in the dark of night. The program stretches across international locations: from the Nevada desert to P.O. boxes in Massachusetts, on to a distant Polish or Romanian village, with stopovers in Egypt and then, perhaps onward to one of the twenty or more black sites in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.

Along the way, kidnapped suspects are taken on board, handcuffed, sometimes hooded then interrogated and tortured. Human rights activists and other democratic citizens will appreciate the meticulous efforts made in this book to record the activity of the secretive flights and the airplanes involved. Letters and official documents prove how flight registration numbers are routinely changed in an effort to avoid public attention. Yet flight logs and recorded plane sightings by plane spotters have been creatively combined by the authors of "Torture Taxi." The book ensures that at least the interested public can get a clear glimpse of how the rendition program systematically operated from within US-government agencies, mostly the CIA.

  Extraordinary renditions allegedly have been carried out from these countries   Detainees have allegedly been transported through these countries   Detainees have allegedly arrived in these countries   The suspected "black sites"  Sources: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Black sites article on Wikipedia

Until now the rendition program has been kept off the public’s radar for a number of reasons. First, it is difficult to link FAA plane registration numbers, flight logs and passenger manifestos to expose the nebulous practices. The array of suspicions, facts and second-guesses are all too indistinguishable for anyone to bring forward legal charges. Exactly how the US-government manages to carry on with the rendition program is never fully in the open, as continuous adjustments to the program allow it to mutate and change its appearances.

By pulling together the seemingly unconnected information and reports about the rendition program, "Torture Taxi" has succeeded to present a fairly coherent picture of how the Bush administration has eroded civil and legal rights of detainees. Earlier this year the European Parliament denounced "the lack of co-operation of many member states and of the Council of the European Union with its investigation into the flight program." It goes on to regret that "European countries have been relinquishing control over their airspace and airports by turning a blind eye or admitting flights operated by the CIA which, on some occasions, were being used for illegal transportation of detainees."(3)

Internationally, the rendition program has been anything but good press for the Bush administration. Amnesty International has put forward some clear recommendations to the US including to

– Ensure that anyone held in US custody in any part of the world can exercise the right to legal representation and to a fair and transparent legal process;
– Disclose the location and status of the detention centres where Muhammad Abdullah Salah al-Assad, Muhammad Faraj Ahmed Bashmilah and Salah Nasser Salim ‘Ali Qaru were held between October 2003 and May 2005;
– Disclose the identities and whereabouts of all others held in secret locations and their legal status, and invite the ICRC to have full and regular access to all those detained;
– Release all detainees in US custody at undisclosed locations unless they are to be charged with internationally recognizable criminal offences and brought to trial promptly and fairly, in full accordance with relevant international standards, and without recourse to the death penalty; (4)

Meanwhile, the Italian judiciary has commenced investigations and a trail in absentia for CIA agents believed to have kidnapped and "renditioned" suspects from Italian territory. Stateside, the Bush administration has been battling with Congress over its attempt to ban torture: a potentially heavy blow to the continuation of the rendition program.

In July of this year, Bush moved to counter criticism of US methods in the treatment of terror suspects and issued an executive order to supposedly bring CIA agents back into compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Bush has consistently denied any use of torture by US officials, preferring to use the term "enhanced interrogation measures." However, criticism from around the world over the "extraordinary rendition" of suspects to secret CIA prisons and countries – such as Syria where torture is practiced – may have forced Bush to act.

To those suspects who get hauled away to places like Afghanistan, it matters little if they find themselves in a military prison or an actual black site, one of the unofficial detention centers or secret facilities all around the world, usually run by the CIA. As Paglen and Thompson discovered in Afghanistan, black sites may officially be operated by the "host’ countries: behind the barbed wire, US contractors and CIA agents play ‘advisory roles’, or much worse. Increasingly, it is easy for the Department of Defense to offer "real estate" to the CIA, possibly also to use for black sites. The French journal Le Monde Diplomatique reported that the Pentagon is literally everywhere, owning and occupying huge swathes of territory across the entire world. Citing 2005 documents, it is noted that the Pentagon acknowledges 39 nations with at least one US base, and that it stations personnel in over 140 countries, boasting at least physical 571,900 facilities.(5)

It is not hard to imagine that the US-friendly regimes around the world – Poland, Romania, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia – are willing accomplices for providing black site locations. The dirty work inside the black sites is readily left to torture masters of these allies in the war on terror. With dozens of US military bases set up all around the world, the logistics of transferring suspects to a remote black site country are no longer a significant challenge.(6)

At the end of the day, the rendition program remains a nebulous affair, albeit less so thanks to the pot the authors have stirred, using traditional and novel journalistic methods. Contrary to what the politicians behind the smokescreens would like us to believe, it is engaged citizens like Paglen and Thompson who help to make the world a safer place.


Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, Melville House Publishing, 2006, $23.00


(1) Stephen Grey, United States: Trade in Torture in Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2005,

(2) September 19th, 2006 interview online at Truthdig:

Also see the September 15th, 2006 "Democracy Now!" interview with the authors, "Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights" at:

(3) EU rendition report: Key excerpts, BBC news, 14 February 2007:

(4) Amnesty International (AI) provides a detailed account of the rendition program in its April 5, 2006 report "Below the radar: Secret flights to torture and ‘disappearance" In the report AI notes that the Gulfstream V executive jet, variously registered as N379P, N8068V and N44982 has been the plane most often identified with known cases of rendition. AI has records of 590 landings and take offs between February 2001 and September 2005.

(5 ) Ownership of the earth, the seas and the skies – Planet Pentagon,

by Nick Turse, in Le Monde diplomatique, August 2007,

(6) Military Times, "The trusted resource for Military news and information!" readily provides insights into the places of deployment of military forces in the Middle East, including troop numbers and unit specifications. See:

For more, online info also visit:

a) Guardian Unlimited,,1662557,00.html

b) – The site for plane spotters and aviation

c) The Plane Spotters Homepage