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Track the CIA's Secret Rendition Flights with a New Interactive Map

The Rendition Project's website is an endlessly fascinating look at one of the the most controversial byproducts of the War on Terror.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

A soldier stands guard inside Camp 5 at Guantanamo, via the Defense Department

The CIA's extraordinary rendition program, which consisted of flying terrorist detainees across borders, often for aggressive, extra-legal interrogation, is one of the lasting legacies of the post-9/11 world that Bush and Cheney built.

Over the years, the rendition program has encountered stiff resistance, though never enough to stop it. The Rendition Project, based in the UK, hopes to change that. Or, at the very least, keep it in the public eye.

A collaborative effort between Kent and Kingston university academics and the non-governmental organization (NGO) Reprieve, The Rendition Project is sure to piss of a few people in the US and beyond.

“The Rendition Project has begun an ambitious initiative to 'map' the global rendition system, providing a detailed analysis of its component parts and a clearer understanding of how they fit together,” reads a release on The Rendition Project's homepage. “The focus has been on tracking the movement of CIA flights around the world, and individual detainees as they have been transferred between secret prisons for continued detention and torture.”

The War on Terror, visualized.

It wasn't as if the United States didn't dabble—nay, excel—in shady covert missions and programs before 9/11. But rendition was and is different because snatching up suspected terrorists for interrogation in foreign countries is so flagrantly, unapologetically imperialistic—although it did succeed because it had the support of a surprising number of nations.

To see how the program worked, users are now able to search the Rendition Flights Database, where they will find data and analyses on the prisons and aircraft used by the CIA and US allies. And, like an Orwellian gaze turned back on Big Brother, users will be able to “track the movements of those detainees subjected to rendition, torture and secret detention in the 'war on terror'.” All of this is compiled by Reprieve from public flight data.

For instance, users can look at a map of every suspected rendition flight. It's really something to then imagine covert raids, kidnapping, bags over heads, midnight flights, jet engines, doctored flight logs, interrogation facilities, dummy planes, torture chambers, sleep deprivation, and any number of other things that happen with rendition.

Users will see, for instance, that in 2004 a plane left the US, zig-zagged across a few Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, where they picked up Libyan dissidents and deposited them in the cozy confines of Gaddafi's regime. This was back when Gaddafi was useful to Bush's War on Terror. Interesting how times and allies change.

Want to see about rendition flights departing from, of all places, Bermuda? No problem. The flight database can show users that a “highly suspicious circuit” began in Bermuda, then hop-scotched across Terceira Island (Portugal) and Carthage (Tunisia), before landing for a little R&R in Amman, Jordan.

In April 2004, an executive jet with the tail number N313P, which was then owned by the CIA and operated by shell companies, spent a week bouncing around the Mediterranean and Europe, with stops in Libya.

The Rendition Project is careful to note that the database is not exact science.

“Each aircraft in the Database has been included because it has been the focus of one or more past investigations into renditions flights,” writes The Rendition Project on its Words of Caution page. “However, this does not mean that all of these aircraft were actually involved in the renditions network, and indeed it is highly likely that a number were not.”

They also note that not all flights by suspected rendition aircraft in the database might be linked to rendition and secret detention. As an example, the project points to businessman Philip Morse and his Gulfstream IV executive jet. As was widely reported in 2011, Morse “flew the Boston Red Sox baseball team to their away games in between performing renditions flights for the CIA.” Not a bad way to make a little extra cash.

Flights represented in the database might not have even taken place, cautions The Rendition Project. Apparently not all flight plans are “enacted,” and dummy flight plans are sometimes used. Also worth noting is that the CIA changed registration numbers on renditions aircraft. The CIA may have also used military aircraft—which don't have the same reporting standards as civilian aircraft—in the rendition program.

“That said, the Database represents far and away the most extensive picture of rendition flights yet published,” claims The Rendition Project. “[It's] a powerful tool for uncovering and understanding the operational aspects of the global system of rendition and secret detention.”

Perhaps as interesting as the database itself is imagining what we cannot see. That is, all of the flights that have been effectively hidden from The Rendition Project and all other observers. Regardless, The Rendition Project's website is an endlessly fascinating look at one of the the most controversial byproducts of the War on Terror.