The Globalization of Rendition and Secret Detention

The Globalization of Rendition and Secret Detention

In mid-May, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Ruth J Blakeley, a professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield, to discuss her work on the globalization of rendition and secret detention. Professor Blakeley’s work focuses on a range of issues across the areas of international security, the global governance of human rights, terrorism, and political violence. Her work on the Rendition Project was accredited under the Global Uncertainties programme. Professor Blakeley has continued to explore issues involved in torture and rendition, most recently publishing a piece in International Affairs on accountability, denial and the future-proofing of British torture with her co-investigator Dr Sam Raphael.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about how did you end up working on the globalization of rendition and secret detention?

Professor Ruth Blakeley: I had just completed my first book, called State Terrorism and Neoliberalism, which explored the dynamics of state terrorism, and the intersections between the global political economy and the ways in which states such as the US and UK have been involved in human rights abuses as part of the process of transforming economies in the Global South. One of the final chapters of that book explored how the US and UK were involved in human rights abuses in the fight against terrorism after 9/11. As I was finishing up that research, reports began to come out about the CIA’s use of kidnapping operations, secret prisons, and the torture of terror suspects which alleged that some of those kidnapping operations involved European states. My past research seemed like a good jumping off point to begin an exploration of this secretive and nefarious program, so I applied for ESRC funding with the hope of starting a new project on rendition and detention.

The research councils thought what I wanted to accomplish was too ambitious for one researcher, so I teamed up with Dr Sam Raphael, who is now at the University of Westminster, and we’ve been working together in this area ever since.

How did you begin to plan and expend your ideas to build this project, and to figure out what approach to take in tackling this incredibly complex topic?

At the beginning, we had planned on mainly doing desk-based research using open source material from journalistic investigations of secret detention. However, we quickly worked out that most of the academic research being done on this subject was in the field of international human rights and law, and that there wasn’t any international relations or international security research on the dynamics of these secretive programs. Why were different countries involved? How did it work? The only organizations researching these questions were human rights groups and litigators representing specific victims, and there was a clear need for research which would develop a collective understanding of this issue on a wider scale.

With that in mind, Sam and I contacted a legal action charity called Reprieve, which represents people in the US facing death sentences, including some prisoners in Guantanamo. At first, Sam and I had wanted to take a regional approach to understanding the CIA’s rendition program, but Reprieve convinced us that this issue required a global approach. I think it was a good example of how getting practitioners involved on the ground can help shape your thinking as an academic. 

What was it like working with a non-governmental organization?

It took more than six months to really build trust with that organization, and I think that like a lot of NGOs, they had had mixed experiences working with academics. They wanted to ensure that we were trustworthy, because there are so many sensitivities involved in representing people still held in prisons in Guantanamo Bay. I think they were also quite rightly concerned that some academics can be a bit predatory about crediting and data, so we worked quite hard to build our relationship with them, and it ended up being very worthwhile.   

Once you had built your relationship with Reprieve, what did the project itself entail?

Reprieve told us that there was a lot of air traffic control data relating to the aircraft that the CIA had hired to carry out kidnap operations. They had some of the data already, and they negotiated with EU investigators our behalf to help us get access to more of this data. Once we got it, in 2011, it took us about 18 months to figure out how to make that data useable – because it was just row after row of private aircraft journeys on spreadsheets. There’s a huge amount of data there that has nothing to do with the CIA, so we were looking for journeys with stop offs in key hotspots – say a flight which started in Langley, Virginia, stopped in Scotland to refuel, and then went to Afghanistan. We then triangulated with open source information, including human rights investigations and victim testimonies, to match flight data to specific prisoners. In doing so, we were able to show that UK airports had been used much more extensively than had been previously realized. As far as we were able to work out, there was never a prisoner on the aircraft landing in the UK, but there were UK stops for refueling or logistical support. Successive governments had always denied UK involvement, except for one admittance by David Miliband, but our work found that dozens and dozens of operations involved stop-offs in UK territory.

We published that flight data, teaming up with the Guardian newspaper to build an interactive database that makes our findings accessible. That was published in 2013, alongside a series of Guardian articles demonstrating that the UK was much more extensively involved in rendition operations than had been previously accepted or acknowledged.

What you have just described cover the period during which your project fell under the Global Uncertainties programme, but you’ve have continued working in this area in the years since. So, what happened next?

We kept thinking we would come to a point where we had exhausted what we could do with the research… and then something else would happen. One important moment was that in 2014, the US Senate Select Committee published some findings from its own investigation into CIA torture. Only the executive summary was ever released publicly, and even it was heavily redacted. The senate report corroborated many of our findings. They had given prisoners and locations pseudonyms in their report, but we were able to reidentify many of the places and people using what we had found in our earlier investigation with air traffic control data. From there, we started to determine whether we could uncover some of the other things that were hidden in the redacted sections of Senate Select Committee Report, continuing to collaborate with Reprieve and some folks from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. From that, we were able to publish a book last year on CIA torture which is our attempt at un-redacting the Senate report.  

What do you think the impact and legacy of this work has been?

It would be delusional to think that this work will stop people who are pro-torture from being pro-torture. I mean, the reality is that the current US President thinks that waterboarding is fantastic. And certainly, recent governments here in the UK have been unwilling and unprepared to avoid running operations where there is a risk that third parties will be engaging in torture in the same place. However, the research shows that torture does not work, and the US Senate concluded that torture had significant blowback effects and resulted in more support for Al Qaeda and ISIS in certain areas of the world. Notwithstanding arguments someone wants to make about the ethics of torture, the bottom line is that strategically, torture is a bad idea.

So, our work has not stopped torture, but I think we have been able to set forth a more honest reckoning in the UK about how extensively the UK is involved in operations which involve torture, and we’ve been able to prove that individuals were subjected to rendition and torture at the hands of the CIA and a number of global partners.

That work has only been possible because of the close collaborations Sam and I have had with a whole range of civil society actors and human rights NGOs. With their help, we have been able to produce research which has been used by litigators representing victims of torture at the European Court of Human Rights, the African Commission, and the Military Trials at Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, it was used in evidence provided to the UN Committee on Torture’s periodic review of the UK in 2019, which resulted in the UN calling on the UK to undertake a full, independent inquiry into UK collusion in torture. Wherever possible, we and our civil society partners have taken opportunities to interject into government narratives and government processes to inject some accountability.

Our research has also informed and shaped the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s review of the guidance given to UK intelligence and security services on collaborating with overseas partners where torture is a risk, resulting in some key changes to the guidance. Rendition is now recognized as a form of torture, and the guidance on torture has now been extended to apply to a whole host of British agencies. Sam and I were the only academics called as witnesses by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee for the investigation into UK involvement in rendition and detainee abuse which resulted in those changes. We were able to convey that there are significant weaknesses in the guidance given to intelligence and security committees which has resulted in breaches of international law. That committee, led by MP Dominic Grieve, took our findings seriously, and the NGOS we had worked with had encouraged us to go and share our evidence because it’s vital that the public record on torture is correct.

Dominic Grieve’s investigation was hamstrung, and there have been subsequent calls, including from the UN, for an independent inquiry. One of the last things Theresa May did as Prime Minister was to refuse to launch an independent inquiry into the UK’s involvement in rendition. Our research informed legal action by MPs Dan Jarvis and David Davis and Reprieve against the UK government for refusing to launch that independent inquiry, and in December 2019, the High Court ruled that there should be a judicial review of the decision not to launch an independent inquiry. I do not know whether the ongoing pandemic will affect this, but as of right now the hearing on that was scheduled for July 2020.

That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing that. To end on a lighter note – I also understand that your research has inspired a theater production?

Yeah! There was a theatre producer with the Edinburgh theatre company, Tragic Carpet, who works with marionettes and immersive theatre. She contacted me after reading about my work, and then wrote this production based around the story of two or three of the prisoners. She uses recordings and multimedia contributions from different protagonists to create a really moving production. As a consultant on the project, I didn’t really know what it was going to be like, but I went to the last night of a five night run in Edinburgh and to do a Q&A with her after the production, and the production absolutely blew my mind. To be honest, depictions of torture in films and TV shows like Homeland and 24 is wrong. It is salacious, and gratuitous, and there’s often the incorrect narrative in those stories that torture gets intelligence, when that’s just not true. This Tragic Carpet production did a much better job of suggestively conveying the emotions involved in the rendition and detention experience. The production got various accolades and ended up coming to Sheffield for the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science.

It was unexpected and nice to see your research inspire a very different group of people. NGOs and students are familiar with these kinds of things, but this production was a really great way to introduce people who are interested in theatre to the politics surrounding torture and detention.

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash