Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition

Printed Matters

Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition

By Roula Seikaly June 9, 2016

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.


“Extraordinary rendition” describes the illegal transfer of state “enemies” from one country to another. This tactic, and the torture that almost surely follows, has been deployed throughout the United States’ history and drew focused attention after the September 11th attacks and the American-led “war on terror” that plunged Iraq and Afghanistan into chaos beginning in late 2001.

For Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, photographer Edmund Clark and journalist Crofton Black researched and documented the physical traces of state-sanctioned human rights violations, each collecting and scrutinizing unconventional yet ultimately damning material. Understanding that the CIA and other collaborating government agencies would not readily provide details of who was taken and what was done to them, Clark and Black pursued the “weak links.”1 This otherwise mundane documentation—invoices, documents of incorporation, billing reconciliations—demonstrates how corporations specializing in aviation and defense support in “small-town and small and medium enterprise America” got into the business of counterterrorism. The product of Clark and Black’s rigorous, four year professional engagement, Negative Publicity documents how capitalism has enabled torture.

Edmund Clark, A room formerly used for interrogations in the Libyan intelligence service facility at Tajoura, Tripoli, from Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (2016). Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

For a book produced by Aperture, one of the most respected publishers of photographic titles, Clark’s photographs are unremarkable, and that is their strength. The images—casual, almost sloppy compositions that read more like field notes than finished pieces—are reproduced alternately as single pages and foldouts, all with narrow or uneven borders throughout, and cryptic numeric designations in the margins. Clark captures the forgettable (the exterior of a New York-based aviation outfit) and the forgotten (an abandoned interrogation room in Tripoli, Libya). Systems that support the intimate atrocity of torture are both closer and more remote than we realize. In these images, we aren’t meant to marvel at Clark’s technical acumen, or to gawk at spaces in which brutality unfolded. Clark shows us that looking at the cooperating domestic corporations and black sites themselves reveals little more than basic information. Looking into these locations and what goes on there, as the authors did, devastates.2

Contained by a plastic spiral binder, Negative Publicity comprises detailed descriptions of commercial interests that overlapped in the course of extraordinary rendition missions. Each chapter includes photographs of black sites and their immediate environs as well as an assortment of faded Xerox or fax copies of security activity logs, court deposition transcripts, translated arrest warrants, heavily redacted CIA cables, and detailed captions that identify and illustrate the importance of each. These often-incomplete documents provide, at best, a glimpse of the paperwork produced in transporting abductees and, like Clark’s photographs, affirm that deeper research is necessary if we are to understand extraordinary rendition more fully. Black maintains a neutral, almost dispassionate journalistic tone, but, beneath that polished veneer, outright disgust for the purveyors of detention and interrogation girds every carefully worded sentence.

Edmund Clark, Abu Salim prison, Libya, from Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (2016). Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

Even after years of dedicated reporting, the numbers remain chilling. An estimated 136 people were extraordinarily rendered, spirited away to known black sites in fifty-four participating countries including Afghanistan, Lithuania, Morocco, Poland, and Thailand. Once in custody, abductees were subject to a litany of sadistic physical and psychological abuses at the hands of “CIA interrogators,” including waterboarding, beatings, sensory and sleep deprivation, and mock executions. No formal charges against abductees were ever made, and torturers operated with little or no formal oversight. These tactics continue to be justified as a means to gain information that the interrogators argue could forestall future bloodshed in the United States and around the globe. Extraordinary rendition and torture, or “enhanced interrogation” as it was euphemistically named by the Bush administration, proved ineffective, yet as of President Obama’s 2009 executive order the same strategies continue to be deployed.

Clark and Black’s testimonial begins in Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. A stone’s throw from the city is Antaviliai, a languishing village that was more or less taken over by Elite LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based firm incorporated in 2003 that provided “consulting and advisory services in the areas of finance, investments, and general trading.”3 In 2004, villagers watched as the town’s equestrian club, once a community hub, was converted through stealth operations into a windowless and heavily monitored site to which no outside access was granted. Those who worked on the site were reluctant to speak, and speculation from village residents about what went on inside the incongruous structure suggests that they knew the activities that took place inside were wrong. “We thought they were going to build hotels, develop business, but they sold all the horses and then this certain emptiness started.”4

Edmund Clark, Richmor Aviation’s office at Columbia County Airport, New York, from Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (2016). Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

From Lithuania, the narrative shifts back to the United States in “Transaction of the Year.” Black details the 2003 corporate acquisition of DynCorp Systems and Solutions, a private military company, by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), an IT support company primarily sustained by federal contracts. CSC worked with the newly formed Department of Homeland Security to meet the growing need for covert transport of detainees at a moment’s notice. In early 2005, after a CSC-subcontracted jet was publicly identified in the extraordinary rendition of Abu Omar, CSC halted use of the jet as media attention to the Omar case grew. “Just curious… do you think it has anything to do with all the media attention?” reads one part of an email exchange between CSC agents. The other agent responds: “Absolutely not. Just an itinerary change for the invitees. : ) .” It is staggering to consider how many equally callous exchanges have taken place in fourteen years, and how many more may follow.

Four successive chapters highlight investigative reporting by Dana Priest as well as David Johnston and Mark Mazzetti and lay out the evidence by which black sites around the globe were exposed, and the precipitous fall of CIA luminaries Kyle “Dusty” Foggo and Porter Goss in 2006 was set in motion. As media scrutiny grew more intense, the case of Foggo and Goss demonstrated how quickly the CIA lost control of the rendition narrative. Despite the exposure and international criticism that followed, transport of abductees within the international web of black sites continues uninterrupted, producing the paperwork that ultimately formed the core of Clark and Black’s book.

Negative Publicity closes with an elegant essay penned by Eyal Weizman, a London-based forensic architect and educator who considers, among other topics, the physical structures where state-sanctioned abuses are carried out. Here he writes about secrecy, the systems and conditions that support it, and its power to both protect and destroy society. To deconstruct the notion of secrets, Weizman focuses on those who suffer extraordinary rendition, those who order and carry it out, and finally, how the general public is kept or remains willfully in the dark. “The secret protects us," Weizman states. "The exposure of the secret may or may not make us feel guilty. Certainly it makes us take a choice. A political choice—do we condone it?”5 Throughout this exceptional volume, that prescient question hangs over every photograph and document, but isn’t directly posed until the very end, leaving readers to decide. Clark, Black, and Weizman don’t issue a call to action, exactly, but present evidence that we must face if we are ever to fully grasp the cost of security. Our government has done its best to sustain the narrative of extraordinary rendition as essential to national security, trafficking in secrets that shred our moral fabric. Do we condone it?

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Notes

  1. Edmund Clark, “Some Third Party,” Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (New York: Aperture, 2015), 7–8. On the term “testimony,” Edmund Clark writes in the foreword that the book is not intended to bear witness to the “transported and tortured of extraordinary rendition.” He argues that a “true” witness undergoes a personal experience, one that cannot be shared and may not be survived. Bearing testimony, by comparison, suggests seeing something from beginning to end and giving an account of it (7).
  2. Ibid., 9.
  3. Crofton Black, “The Certain Emptiness,” Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (New York: Aperture, 2015), 37.
  4. Ibid., 38.
  5. Eyal Weizman, “Strikeout: The Material Infrastructure of the Secret,” Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (New York: Aperture, 2015), 285.

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