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The ‘black ops’ of America

The US military spends $30 billion annually on classified military programmes, ranging from spy satellites to 'extraordinary rendition'. These secret 'black operations' leave a mark on our everyday landscapes and legible traces in public data. Trevor Paglen is an artist and experimental geographer working to create visual representations of these secret worlds. He spoke to Oscar Reyes

July 1, 2007
9 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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Even the best-kept secrets are usually uncoverable; and even when we don’t know exactly what they are, we can still discern their existence. Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, might have called such secrets ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know. In the world of the US military, they have another name – ‘black operations’. The term refers to those US military or intelligence agency projects whose very existence is unacknowledged, but whose traces are nevertheless present in public data, military budgets and in the landscapes that they reshape.

Trevor Paglen, is an artist, writer and experimental geographer based in Berkeley, California, who attempts to make visible this secret world of ‘black ops’. His work combines investigative journalism and data gathering techniques learnt from hobbyist plane-spotters with the sensibilities of an artist and a geographer’s sense of the material world. ‘One of the axioms of human geography is that money congeals into space; that money sculpts the surface of the earth,’ explains Paglen, whose ‘Blank Spots on a Map’ project examines how the US military’s ‘black budget’ reshapes the landscape.

Blank spots on a map

The extent of these classified US military programmes is enormous. ‘In the US defence budget you’ll see a bunch of programmes with weird names like Black Light, Thermal Victor or Forest Green,’ says Paglen. ‘If you look up these code names in the budget justification document, and find there’s no justification offered, or it is listed as classified, that budget line constitutes a black project.’

Paglen calculates the discrepancy between the sum of these budget lines and the published total defence budget as being about $30 billion annually, a figure corroborated in studies by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank. ‘To put that in context, $30 billion will fund the government of Afghanistan at current levels for about 50 years,’ says Paglen. It is equivalent to about half of the total annual UK defence budget. This is secrecy by gigantism.

The history of these black projects can be traced back to the second world war, when President Roosevelt funded a variety of secret air force programmes, including the jet fighter and the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. ‘It was a huge industrial effort,’ says Paglen. ‘In fact, the scale of the Manhattan Project was larger than the US automotive industry at the time. It cost a little over $2 billion. But if you adjust that for inflation it turns out to be less than the annual black budget now.’

In 1949, this black budget was given what remains its only legal authorisation by means of the CIA Act, which allows the agency to appropriate vast sums without having to seek congressional justification. Since that time, it has been used to develop expensive weapons and reconnaissance systems, not to mention the global support structures of satellite posts and other military installations.

Torture taxis

While most of the ‘black money’ is spent on technology and procurement, it also accounts for numerous covert operations, the (often illegal) activities of US intelligence officer s on the g round. These include the now infamous ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme, whereby kidnapped suspects were flown between a network of CIA-operated prisons and tortured.

‘I first noticed the rendition planes in 2002,’ says Paglen, whose book on extraordinary rendition, Torture Taxi (co-authored with AC Thompson), is released in the UK this month. ‘It was clear that something really weird was going on, but it took a long time for enough pieces to come together.’

Paglen recounts how he started to record flight data after a friend had alerted him to civilian planes ‘showing up at these weird airstrips in Nevada and going to Guantanamo Bay, Libya, Afghanistan and all kinds of strange places’. From these early leads, Paglen and Thompson followed the trail all the way from suburban Massachusetts, where they discovered a CIA front company supplying the agency with ‘civilian’ planes, to Afghanistan, where they visited the notorious CIA ‘Salt Pit’ and ‘Dark Prison’ facilities, and interviewed former prisoners about their experiences of rendition and torture.

These rendition programmes also traversed Europe, as a report published on 8 June by the continent’s official human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, revealed: ‘Large numbers of people have been abducted from var ious locations across the world and transfer red to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice.’

This 19-month study offer s a far more detailed account of rendition than the cynical whitewash issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO) on the same day. ACPO found ‘no evidence that UK airports were used to transport people by the CIA for torture in other countries’. This was despite the fact that a Guardian newspaper investigation of flight data in September 2005 found that at least 210 rendition flights had passed through the UK.

Paglen laughs when I ask him whether British security services collaborate with these programmes. ‘Oh yeah, the British are totally involved in this stuff. The clearest examples are the cases of two UK residents, Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, who were abducted in the Gambia in 2002 and taken out to Kabul before ending up at Guantanamo. ‘ The British role in this case, and others, was condemned in a European Parliament report published in November 2006.

Short-circuiting conspiracies

Mid-way through Torture Taxi, Paglen and Thompson recall how in A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, Holmes informs Watson that a composite picture can emerge from a seemingly disparate mosaic of facts. This investigative logic may have been lost on ACPO, but it is an important guiding principle in Paglen and Thompson’s work. ‘By accessing multiple sources of data, one can find bits and pieces of raw information … [that] can provide the Holmesian drops of water that one might use to infer the existence of oceans,’ they write.

Disciplined cross-referencing of data is particularly important in tracking military secrets, an area in which conspiracy theories and misinformation abound. ‘Working on this requires a certain kind of intellectual discipline and being very careful about speculating,’ says Paglen. ‘To start with, it helps to think about what you’d actually need to do to set up a secret programme, and what evidence this would leave in the public record – such as plane codings or patents. Then, in assembling these clues, it is important not to synthesise them too neatly.’

‘What is frustrating about a lot of the 9/11 inside-job conspiracies,’ he says, ‘is that they take a lot of details that don’t make sense and assume there is some kind of underlying logic to that. But the world is an unbelievably messy place, and when you look at the details you always find inconsistencies, things that you can’t explain.’

‘The 9/11 conspiracy theories also assume that somebody is capable of doing something like that, not only philosophically but logistically,’ he continues. ‘But you’ve got to remember that this is the US government, the people who can’t run Amtrack trains. The CIA renditions programme was one of the “blackest” ever, but the reason why I and others were able to research it at all is because they just fuck up in so many places that it becomes visible.’

Seeing military secrets

Paglen’s work is not simply about gathering data, however. ‘I’m interested not only in the brute facts about these black projects but the kinds of epistemological problems that they pose,’ he says. ‘The question of how you represent that which cannot be represented is a very old problem in aesthetics.’

Another of Paglen’s projects is on the ‘symbology’ of military culture, collecting the patches and insignias worn on the uniforms of those engaged in secret military operations. ‘Even though the projects themselves are not acknowledged, it turns out that the guys working on them will develop a totemic visual language to represent them,’ he explains. ‘Traditionally this is a religious question – where god, the divine, is so great it cannot be captured visually, so elaborate symbolic systems emerge. I think there is something similar going on with a lot of the iconography associated with these black projects: there’s this whole visual language that’s designed to represent that which cannot be represented.’

By displaying these patches in art galleries, Paglen hopes to provoke questions about the existence of secret operations, but acknowledges that this symbolism says as much about ‘the impossibility of revelation’. Another of his projects, which develops a technique called ‘limit telephotography’ to photograph military landscapes at a distance of up to 60 miles, plays on a similar ambiguity.

The hazy images struggle to reveal details that are invisible to the naked eye, but the thickness of the earth’s atmosphere blurs them into abstract forms. ‘In some ways,’ writes Paglen of the project, ‘it is easier to photograph the depths of the solar system than it is to photograph the recesses of the military industrial complex. ‘

It is no surprise, then, that he has begun work on a new project about the night sky and spy satellites. ‘It’s about putting this idea that the night sky is some kind of sublime space into tension with this idea that when you actually look into it you see all sorts of evidence that it has been militarised,’ he says. ‘Besides which, I really like astronomy. ‘Torture Taxi: on the trail of the CIA’s rendition flights is published on 5 July 2007 by Icon Books. For more details of Trevor Paglen’s work, see www.paglen.com

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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