Forthcoming film to shed light on top-secret rendition program

Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, written by A.C. Thompson and Trevor Paglan, chronicles the discovery of a fleet of CIA airplanes that have shuttled terror suspects around the globe. Disguised as business jets, these planes have been a key part of the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition airlift operation, which transports these prisoners to secret bases in Europe, Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan for questioning and interrogation.

This covert U.S. government program was first brought to public attention by a tight-knit group of international “plane spotters” who monitor military and civilian aircraft movement throughout the world.

The documentary production company Motion Picture Production Incorporated is working on turning the book, published by Melville House Publishing last year, into a feature-length film to hit theaters late this year. The Hill recently interviewed Thompson about the book and what he hopes the film will accomplish:

Q: What do you hope to add to the story when it’s made into a film?

A:  For the book, the goal was to reverse-engineer the way the plane spotters discovered the program, and what you could learn through public channels. We’re building on that now to bring in congressional insiders and try to incorporate what they know or want to know about the program.

Q: Is there going to be a partisan slant to the film? In the book, you discuss how this program spanned from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.

A: No. That’s one of the things that we want to stress. Both parties have been involved in this program. Both parties have allowed it to go forward, and neither has launched a major effort to change it.

In the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, there was a joint FBI-CIA team authorized [to use these planes] to go after people allied with Osama bin Laden. They were basically snatching and grabbing these characters. What happened after 2001 is that the program was shifted over to the CIA Counterterrorism Center. It then morphed from this pretty discreet program to a much more sweeping program and started taking prisoners to jails in Afghanistan, Iraq, Poland and Romania.

Q: What was the most interesting part of the research?

A: We went to Afghanistan and took one of the only photos of the Salt Pit, [a secret prison] right outside of Kabul. That’s its CIA code name. When you get to Afghanistan, you realize it’s a perfect place to set up secret jail facilities — the country’s in a state of semi-chaos, with different overlapping levels of control.

Q: How did you get involved in the story in the first place?

A: I’m currently working at the Center for Investigative Reporting, an organization that was founded by Lowell Berman. We work on documentaries for PBS’s “Frontline.” We were working on a documentary on the war on terror last year. So the book started as a story about a plane believed to be used in the extraordinary rendition program, and its connection to a Nevada lawyer who set up a front company to make it look like it was owned by a civilian company. In fact, it was owned by the CIA. From there, we tried to find out how you set up a small airline to take people around the world to these secret prisons.

My co-author, Trevor Paglen, was at [the University of California at Berkeley] working on a dissertation about secret military facilities and the CIA [extraordinary rendition] program. He was looking into this whole subculture of people that track planes. If you do that enough, you start noticing strange things about planes. [This group] started putting together a list of planes they were tracking that were going into places like Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. They fed that information to journalists in Europe and over here. We took that information and those techniques that the plane spotters showed us. That’s how the reporting on the program began.