Blank spots on a map: a lecture by Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, author of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, and the upcoming book I Could Tell You But You Would Have to be Destroyed By Me, delivered a lecture to a standing room only crowd at Krober Hall on the UC Berkeley Campus on Monday, September 17, 2007.

Paglen lists his job titles as: geographer, artist, and an amateur anthropologist. He has a flair for social engineering and research reminiscent of 1980s computer hackers.

I saw his exhibit of fake passports used by FBI agents last year, at an art show about terrorism and surveillance, that showed his imaginative and sensitive approach to these questions eating everyone but discussed by no one.

The talk opened with photographs of McCone Hall, home to Trevor’s office, also named after a former CIA chief. In a chance encounter with a pilot outside his office, Trevor learned of the restricted areas where pilots are forbidden to land. The pilot referred to these areas as “The Box” and collectively as a “Black World.”

Trevor’s obsessive research focuses on the Pentagon Budget, tracking aircraft flight patterns online and visually, and dogging, outfoxing, and cornering personnel involved in these operations into giving up information. He also collects and studies peculiar patches worn by military personnel with mottos related to secrecy.

Pentagon Budget

The Pentagon Budget allows $30 billion dollars for secret projects. Trevor claims much of this money is spent on projects in the American Southwest. The first secret military project to be disclosed was tests of jet planes, followed by the nuclear bomb, which required more labor and materials than the entire auto industry.

Trevor went through the Pentagon Budget line by line, highlighting projects with secret budgets. With names like Pilot Fish, Chalk Coral, Retract Maple etcetera, it sounds like we should ask the Pentagon planners what kind of drugs they are on and where we can get some.

Tracking Flights

“Geography pays off like a loose slot machine.” Trevor demonstrates this in his book Torture Taxi, where his careful research shone light on the abominable extraordinary rendition program, the practice of transferring prisoners from the US to other nation states whose governments commonly practice torture as law enforcement. He discovered the front companies being used for these flights and tracked the individual planes as they criss-crossed the world carrying torture victims. He visited sham offices and traced dozens of corporate directors to a single PO Box in Virginia (which is also shared by a pilot indicted in Italy). Trevor’s research into these extraordinary rendition flights is used by anti-torture activists internationally, and provided solid facts that added thrust to the growing movement to end this abhorrent violation of international law and human rights.

Trevor went to great lengths to unravel the secrets of these flights and even join alumni organizations during their reunions. He found absurd commemorations of operations they would like to celebrate but are not permitted to openly acknowledge, such as awards for “Significant Achievements in a Remote Location.”

Patch Collecting

He suspects the military patches he collects were associated with secret operations. His research is fascinating and gives insight into the peculiar military culture of hazing, abuse, secrecy, and brainwashing. Secrecy is ubiquitous in military culture, especially research and development, but Trevor’s particularly nauseating examples show clearly how disturbed, sick, and damaging military culture can be.

The “Bird of Prey” patch is associated with a secret aircraft declassified in 1992, and the “Desert Prowler – Alone and On the Prowl” brought out a Southwestern association he is fascinated with. Other mottos directly reference a nightmare world of secrecy: “A Secret Squadron”; “A Lifetime of Silence Behind the Green Door”; “National Reconnaissance Office, We Own the Night”; “Don’t Ask – None of Your Fucking Business”; “Let Them Hate So Long As They Fear” and “I Could Tell You, But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me.”

In a less mysterious vein, he showed a University of California patch whose motto was “In Bombs We Trust, Let There Be Nuclear Light.”

Trevor ended with this defiant note of opposition to militaristic culture and support for revolution: “Their [the military’s] motto is ‘Let them hate so long as they fear,’ and those are the guys running the show until we take over collectively.” Trevor’s research is shedding light in a black world, if only there were a million like him.

US out of Iraq! – first person: movign the peace movement beyond the choir

When I saw this flyer calling for an independently organized peace rally at People’s Park in Berkeley, I put the date of the meeting directly in my organizer. The meeting brought me bolt upright in my seat and I set out to do what I could to help Terri and Lawrence and the rest of the gang get the job done. I ended up learning even more. Wanna hear about it?

I previously worked on the anti-war movement in a small military town in the South, where the locals organized against the war in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11 — doing whatever seemed to stand a chance of stopping the war. I honed my skills flyering, handing out leaflets on the street, talking to active duty Navy and Marine GI’s at the Cafe I volunteered at, and enjoying the company of fellow activists at rallies and meetings. We all learned how to light and hold a candle. The climate was hostile but disorganized — the local social institutions didn’t know what to make of our shell-shock organizing. Thuggish military families sometimes confronted us, always on the verge of violence. One activist was pelted by frozen eggs from a car filled with scary black clad dudes in ski masks. We learned from it, wasted nothing, gained guts and commitment.

I used the peace organizing tactics I learned in the South in my efforts on the People’s Park peace rally, handing out fliers in all the unexpected places and to all the unexpected people that “activists” don’t usually visit.

I like inhabiting places that are shared with widely disparate groups. Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley features football players, military guys, tourists, drug dealers, thugs, college girls — there’s not much I have in common with most of these people. Take tourists, they drive me crazy — try to take pictures, “I’m not a postcard model, man.” But tourists come to check out the scene in the Bay Area — why not give them something to gape at and bring home with them that they’ll have to think about all year. Let them light your cigarette, give them a flyer, give them an exciting peace rally, a funny story, a good idea, a little street drama. They just might pay you back instead of sucking the life out of you, and it sure beats going cross-country to a far away peace rally. I am bored of that but I will if I have to. And you want to know something? At a peace rally in Berkeley when everybody’s got something to say to everybody, about everything, that’s a fucking special time and you better not miss it.

So if you want to go international and try to change the world, think about staying right here and working on changing the world here, first. Find the comfortable safe tourist destinations, the airports, the subway cars, because everybody’s gonna be there, everybody who’s not a shut-in or loaded or in a hospital or jail. Keep up the pressure — don’t lose your momentum. When I’m working the street handing out fliers against the war in Iraq, I can hear the roar of jet engines in my ears. Take the time to appreciate the company of like minded people. When you reach out beyond your comfort zone, you’re not preaching to the choir. In case you haven’t noticed the only choir we got is the Gay Men’s Chorus in SF, we need some new tunes! I mean I’m really into the bands that played in People’s Park — BACKBEAT WHISPER and ALL MY PRETTY ONES. FUNKY NIXONS — they sure got something to say but we need a new song — we need a new song — we need a new song. You better not just be preaching, they’re not a choir, they’re friends, and if you can reach out and touch people as humans, you’re keeping yourself from losing your mind.