In 1968, the CIA set out to recover a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine from the bottom of the Pacific. For the sake of discretion, the work was subcontracted to Global Marine (Glomar), a private company that specialized in ocean-floor drilling. When the journalist Harriet Ann Phillippi tried to find out more under the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA would “neither confirm nor deny” that there were documents about the ship used, the Glomar Explorer, or documents about their censorship. No information passed into the public sphere, but a new term did: “The Glomar Response.” It lives on, underpinning everything in Crofton Black and Edmund Clark’s book on more recent CIA activities, Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition.
The UK record label DEEK recently released an album of covers called Extraordinary Renditions, with a chained pair of hands playing the piano on the cover. It’s a strange kind of pun—rather than a double meaning, it returns to what would have been the phrase’s only meaning when many of the covered songs were written: a remarkable version of a song. Instead, extraordinary rendition now means “the extra-judicial transfer of an individual from one jurisdiction or state to another [with] a real risk of torture or improper treatment”: to render unto Caesar.
Black, a researcher, spent years gathering post-9/11 documents about the rendition process, which Clark, an artist, has supplemented with photographs. The title comes from a document in which a contractor is worrying about the potential attentions of people like Black and Clark. In the course of the book, the authors mimic what happened to the phrase extraordinary rendition by slowly making the phrase negative publicity describe the gaps left in language and geography as data is withdrawn. In language, these blanknesses are created by technocratic euphemisms, Glomar responses, and whole pages’ worth of black-block redacted words.
In geography, there’s the network of “black sites” to which the redactions refer. One of Black’s essays reads like a malign fairy tale, describing the transformation of an old stable near Vilnius into a building that neither the locals nor, importantly, the detainees, could understand. The locals knew where it was but not what it was. Those extraordinarily rendered into it knew all too well what it was, just not where; they had also spent time in spaces that had deliberately been made identical.
Occasionally, flashes of detail emerge through the gaps. Among the documents is interrogation equipment drawn from memory by a detainee, or the odd sentence, “The pregnant woman rendered on this flight describes how she was attached to a stretcher and how one of her eyes was taped open and the other taped shut.” Or, from a document of legal advice, “You have orally informed us that you would not deprive Zubadyah of sleep for more than eleven days at a time.” One of the key tensions comes through in a footnote:
The origin of the English word martyr comes from martys, the Greek word for witness. A Muslim martyr is known as a Shahid (or Shaheed), derived from the Arabic word šhīd, meaning witness. The notion of martyrdom as an act of faith has been co-opted to justify suicide bombings.
Clark doesn’t claim to have witnessed anything in the four years he was making the photographs, and insists that “those who have survived, and are no longer incarcerated, can supply the words of their own testimony—personal or legal.” Instead, he shows the nondescript building near Vilnius, the nondescript offices where planes were chartered, and the homes from which their cargoes were abducted. Sometimes the unpopulated domestic space recalls the sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s casts of negative space; the dead air between the walls of a demolished house or behind a bookcase. Sometimes it recalls Auden’s assertion that suffering “takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” But the title and conceit of the book relies on it being photography telling the story. Like negatives, these images were all essential for the visual bombast of the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq. At one point, we learn of the Libyan national, Ibn al-Shaykh who,
reportedly after being crammed into a tiny box […] gave an account of links between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and chemical and biological weapons which proved decisive in formulating the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq. When he arrived back in the CIA’s hands—four days after secretary of state Colin Powell had told the UN of Iraq’s ‘sophisticated facilities’ which ‘can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people’—Ibn al-Shaykh recanted his account. But by that time the die was cast.
In the afterword to Negative Publicity, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman highlights five different meanings of secrecy in relation to the rendition process. The first applies to the rendered person who does not know where he or she is. The second is among the people doing the rendering: on a need-to-know basis, the pilot of a rendition flight might not know whom they are carrying. The third is from us, the public. The fourth is its inverse, the deterrent effect: “a well-known secret about violence is a form of terror.” The fifth—indebted to the thought of Michel Foucault—is how we internalize this terror, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Does this mean that through exposing their activities, Black, Clark and Weizman end up in a similar position to the CIA subcontractors? If they are, then we, in our own nondescript ways, are, too.