Counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black (LMH, 1994) shares documents and photographs that confront the nature of contemporary covert warfare.

Negative Publicity, Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition

The pictures in Black's book Negative Publicity serve to create an uneasy atmosphere of the mundane. Here, 'The building at Antavilliai', erected on the site of the paddock of the former riding school in Lithuania 

By Richard Lofthouse     

Crofton Black (LMH, 1994) has been probing the world of the CIA and extraordinary rendition for the past six years, after moving from a string of degrees in medieval philosophy into investigative journalism. He explains that 'in the end there’s not that much difference between a medieval manuscript and a spreadsheet of flight data. You study it, you corroborate the results.’
 
Much of his work has been either for Reprieve, a British NGO working with prisoners on Death Row or at Guantánamo Bay, or more recently for the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which has created an inventory of drone attacks to document a largely undocumented form of warfare. Typically, a researcher such as Black will assemble material to help lawyers construct cases on behalf of individuals who have fallen foul of illegal government actions.
 
We are in an East London cafe to discuss a book that he’s co-authored with the photographer Edmund Clark, designed by Ben Weaver. Negative Publicity, Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition feels like an art book crossed with a scrapbook. It’s a big, handsome thing, with a ring-bound spine. Not only does the paper stock vary constantly in weight and colour, but in its very dimensions. American documents are printed to the US standard, shorter and squatter than A4. There are documents with no text, or text that has been redacted, and the reader is presented with primary sources that do not have neat beginnings and endings. An email from a Yahoo account here; flight data there; some photos, a prisoner narrative that ends mid-sentence.
Edmund Clark, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York ‘Swimming pool in the Hotel Gran Melia Victoria, Palma de Mallorca.’ This is where rendition team and flight crew relaxed after the transfers of Binyam Mohamed from Morocco to Afghanistan and of Khaled-el-Masri from Macedonia to Afghanistan
 
Repeatedly, you encounter an unexpected gatefold, where a beautiful photo unfolds to exceed the confines of the book, like a fine art photo.  Except that the subject is neither ravishing, nor of sensational suffering. Crofton shows me one. It’s a cluster of dark spruce trees, and in the distance, the faint frame of a warehouse building, white with a muted red roof. It’s mundane - it could easily be an ice hockey rink, or a self-storage depot piled with ordinary stuff awaiting a new home. Instead the warehouse building turns out to be a CIA-funded and operated detention centre on foreign soil, in this case in Lithuania. 
 
Even if you knew all about this string of secret American prisons and torture centres (I did not), this book may engulf you no less. The subject matter may also account for Black’s serious demeanour. It’s a dark subject, and he’s been wearing it now for six years. 
 
Does it have, I ask bluntly, a campaigning purpose? Is a point being made that we’re supposed to ‘get’?
 
‘Not as such,’ says Black. ‘It doesn’t explain itself on purpose and I’m not campaigning. Rather, we’re trying to convey the appearance of disappearance. How does a government conceal by revealing, and reveal by concealing?’
      
I chance on a page that cannot but be troubling. An American document listing a whole series of methods of torture – this is the CIA remember, not Gaddafi’s Libya or Saddam’s Iraq. They are described as ‘Specific Unauthorized or Undocumented Techniques’ and include ‘Handgun and Powerdrill; Threats; Smoke; Stress Positions; Stiff Brush and Shackles; Waterboard Technique; Mock Executions; Use of Smoke; Use of Cold; Water Dousing and Hard Takedown.’ Worse than what is said, however, is the large block of redacted text in the middle. We are left to ponder what greater horrors it lists - presumably even more extreme techniques than enduring a mock execution that the victim does not know to be ‘mock’.   
 
The fine art aura of the book is a brilliant move and speaks to Black’s own background. After a joint-honours degree in English and Classics at LMH, he then interspersed cataloguing jobs for independent booksellers and an Islamic art gallery in London, with a masters and then a phD at the Warburg Institute, exploring the influence of Jewish and Arab ideas on Renaissance Christianity, focusing on the Italian Pico della Mirandola. Finally, he found himself on a post-doc at Berlin’s Freie university, but via a friend began a volunteer research project for Reprieve, and later the Bureau.
 
I'm warming to all this because it's exactly the sort of crazy zig-zag that Oxonians seem to specialise in. How does medieval and Renaissance philosophy mesh with defending the putative rights of Guantánamo Bay detainees?

Hooded demonstrators hold a sign as they demand the closing of Guantanamo at the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009Demonstrators at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 in Washington DC

‘I like arcane language systems,’ is Black’s reply, an oblique reference to the language of the CIA, and also to how scholars interpret medieval incunabula. The term ‘extraordinary rendition’, for example.   

Black says that before Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, 9/11, the term was not in common use. Historically, he believes that it was used to refer to the movement of slaves from one state to another. Since the ‘war on terror’ it has been used by the CIA to denote extra-judicial detainment of terrorist suspects. Black turns the verb to disappear on its headto be disappeared. He writes: ‘Disappearing people is banned by international and domestic laws of almost every country in the world.’ You want to say, ‘illegal arrest’, but that is an oxymoron because arresting someone is a legal process. Moreover, Black’s deeper point lies beyond. As he puts it: ‘extraordinary rendition is not merely extra-judicial. It is covert, hidden.’

It is also a matrix of the mundane, as pointed out in a peerless closing essay by London University architect and professor Eyal Weizman. One photo is of a lovely, white timbered American structure with SUVs parked out front, housing an aviation contractor. In another, a swimming pool in a hotel in Palma de Mallorca. These images do not take you into a dark secret as such. The rendition team that stayed at that hotel travelled under aliases, not in itself such a big deal. A Spanish Police inquiry showed later that ‘they ordered shrimp cocktails and several bottles of wine.’ We are reminded that prisoners were shuffled around the world in the aviation equivalent of Rolls-Royce Phantoms, Gulfstream private jets, as a cost to the US tax payer of $8,500 per flying hour. There is an intriguing, voyeuristic quality to the documents. 

Edmund Clark, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New YorkBut if there is a ‘point’ this is precisely it, says Weizman, who ventures that whereas in the past banal logistics were in the background, to get weaponry and soldiers up to the front, today they are the fighting. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘military logistics are at the front, having become the operation itself.’ 

So, where does this end? The CIA network of overseas torture facilities, the first hastily constructed in Thailand in 2002, ended with the sale of the Lithuanian warehouse back to the Lithuanian government in January 2007. But the impact of the book points to deeper truths, such as Weizman’s consideration that the Lithuanian warehouse is an architectural redaction, a generic shell; a mask if you will. As such, the whole book is a meditation on the materiality of the covert, about what is disclosed and yet what is still hidden. 

Weizman points out immediately that no society can operate without secrets. But there is a broader view currently doing the rounds, that ex-Snowden, ex-Wikileaks, there are no more secrets, as if the internet has laid everything bare for all to see. If this book is any guide, that view is manifestly naïve.

Obama’s much touted intention to close Guantánamo Bay has not been realised, notes Black. ‘It’s easy to talk about human rights, but I’ve learned that they only really exist for people who don’t need them.’ He adds that most legal cases about rendition remain unfinished. Governments are experts at deflecting, evading, avoiding. They will selectively place just enough information in the public domain to make it seem that enough has been done. ‘These are typically human stories with no resolution,' Black reflects. In at least one case a prisoner was returned by the CIA to their home country, and promptly committed ‘suicide’.
 
The authors land their own punch. The book’s cover is in fact a section of court transcript later revealed, redacted some more by the authors themselves – the only words left visible: negative publicity.  
 
Crofton Black, Edmund Clark, Negative Publicity, Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition
Aperture/The Magnum Foundation, 2016, £50

Images from ‘Negative Publicity’ will be included in an exhibition of Edmund Clark’s work at the Imperial War Museum, London, from July 28 2016 to August 28 2017.

 

Images: Edmund Clark, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York, Shutterstock, and Richard Lofthouse

Comments

By DC
on

Heartening to see this - I don't think it is at all typically Oxonian to be so anti-establishment.

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