What’s Left of the CIA’s Notorious “Black Sites” Secret Prison Network

The building at Antaviliai, erected on the site of the paddock of the former riding school. In 2004, a few months before the Supreme Court ruled in Rasul v. Bush that prisoners at Guantánamo could challenge their detentions through the U.S. court system, the CIA began work on a new prison facility. It was in Antaviliai, a quiet hamlet surrounded by lakes and woods just outside the Lithuanian capital. It was the last secret detention site that it used in Europe. By the time of the facility’s closure in March 2006, the secret detention program’s existence had been widely publicized, although not yet officially acknowledged. 

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

If the secrecy and brutality of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp bothered you, photographer Edmund Clark and counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black’s book, Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, will make your blood boil.

The book, which Aperture and the Magnum Foundation published in February, shows how, between 2001 and 2008, the CIA operated secret prisons, or “black sites,” around the world and transported detainees to them through so-called extraordinary renditions without legal process or public records. Many of those prisons have since disappeared, and many sites used by operatives during renditions carry no evidence of their former uses. But Clark’s photographs of what remains of them, presented alongside documents gathered by Black and his sources that trace the operations, ensure they won’t be forgotten.

“I think it is important to try to engage audiences in a way that reconfigures the prevailing narratives and forms of representation about the events of the War on Terror overall, hopefully to give them space to think about these subjects in a different way, to question what they have seen. It won’t stop these events, of course, it won’t bring accountability either, but it adds to the discourse about them now and in the future,” Clark said via email.

2. Abu Salim prison, Libya. One of the CIA’s captives, a training camp facilitator known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was rendered to Egypt and then held in the CIA’s own prison network for several years before being transferred back to Libya in 2006. Information extracted from him was to prove crucial in the Bush administration’s argument for the invasion of Iraq. This information was suspected at the time, and later established, to have been fabricated under duress. Ibn al-Shaykh was eventually located in Qaddafi’s Abu Salim prison by Human Rights Watch in May 2009. He died a few days later in mysterious circumstances. Abu Salim was emptied of prisoners during the Libyan revolution. The photograph shows damage caused to the building by a NATO bomb. 

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

Bagram Airbase, from the old Soviet control tower. The central base for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Bagram held an initially makeshift, and subsequently purpose-built, prison. Many of those detained by the CIA were transferred here prior to release or to Guantánamo Bay. The facility’s population was around 600 in the early years of the Afghan war and more than doubled under President Obama. Its last inmates were handed over to Afghan control at the end of 2014. 

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

Site in northeast Kabul, believed to have been the location of the Salt Pit, now obscured by new factories and compounds. The Salt Pit is the name commonly given to the CIA’s first Afghanistan prison, which began operating in September 2002. Dozens of prisoners were held there over the next 18 months. Gul Rahman, a young Afghan detainee, died of hypothermia there in November 2002. He was buried in an unmarked grave. The U.S. Senate’s report on the program described how detainees at this facility “were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste.” Members of a visiting delegation from the Federal Bureau of Prisons commented that they had “never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived.” The site was closed in 2004 and replaced by a purpose-built facility intended to offer “heating/air conditioning, conventional plumbing, appropriate lighting, shower and laundry facilities.” 

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

Clark was in the middle of another project about Guantanamo when he met Black at the office of the British human rights organization Reprieve, where he was gathering documents and witness testimonies on a former CIA black site in Lithuania. Black recommended Clark visit the site, which was in a quiet hamlet near the country’s capital, Vilnius. When Clark arrived there in January 2011, he couldn’t access the site itself, but as he wandered the forest surrounding it and talked to the people who lived nearby, he knew he’d come upon a subject worth investigating further. 

“What started as looking at what I thought was an anomalous state of exception in Guantanamo became a constant revisiting of hidden or ignored processes of detention, control and trauma and the realization, perhaps naïve, that the progressive society and culture I came from in post World War II Europe and America was proving to be fragile,” Clark said.

Initially, Clark was reluctant to embrace the idea of traveling the world to “take photos of nothing.” Renditions were about secrecy and unseen experiences, so he knew the sites he sought often wouldn’t be especially photogenic. But as he found other former CIA black sites, sites run by other governments, offices of companies involved in renditions, fake destinations used as decoys, hotels where air crews stayed or detainees were held, and homes of former prisoners, he started seeing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

“I began to understand that the photographs were becoming an act of testimony and that the inability to show much beyond façades of buildings or objects in sites or homes was part of the point of the photography and its limits, and integral to exploring the subject,” Clark said. 

Richmor Aviation’s office at Columbia County Airport. In 2009, a flight operator, Richmor Aviation, sued a broker, Sportsflight Airways, for loss of earnings under a contract for U.S. government flights. The flights had been carried out between 2002 and 2005. The president of Richmor, Mahlon W. Richards, was cross-examined about the use of the jet he managed, a Gulfstream IV registered as N85VM. It had been hired, he said, for “transporting government personnel and their invitees.” The hundreds of pages of invoices and contractual material that were filed as evidence in the case constitute the most comprehensive cache of documents ever released in relation to the CIA’s rendition and secret detention program, and they revealed to investigators the inner workings of this program in unprecedented detail.

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

Swimming Pool in the Hotel Gran Meliá Victoria, Palma de Mallorca. The rendition team and flight crew from N313P relaxed here in January 2004 after the transfers of Binyam Mohamed from Morocco to Afghanistan and of Khaled el-Masri from Macedonia to Afghanistan. Hotel records obtained in the course of a Spanish police inquiry showed that they ordered shrimp cocktails and several bottles of fine wine. They were traveling under aliases, but the fact that they made telephone calls home from the hotel made it possible for reporters to trace them. 

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

A room formerly used for interrogations in the Libyan intelligence service facility at Tajoura, Tripoli. Foreign intelligence services, including the British, received information derived from the interrogation of prisoners rendered back to Tajoura. Referring to one of the men held here— Abdul Hakim Belhadj—Mark Allen wrote to Muammar Qaddafi’s intelligence chief Moussa Koussa: “I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week. Abu Abd Allah’s [Belhadj’s] information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us.”

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

Black’s documents piece together the secret detention network, but like the photos, they conceal as much as they reveal. Many are redacted with black lines, or they contain fake information like aliases and false flight routes. While the documents can be hard to understand and the photos usually require context to make sense, Clark and Black hope a sense of outrage emerges from the obscurity. 

“I watch people look through the book and although much of what’s in it isn’t at first intelligible I can see a slow disquiet spreading. There are pages of stuff that looks innocent, banal, unthreatening and then sudden flashes which switch these into a different, more terrible perspective,” Black said via email. 

Images from Negative Publicity will be included in an exhibition of Edmund Clark’s work at London’s Imperial War Museum from July 28 to Aug. 28.

Room 11, Skopski Merak hotel, Skopje, Macedonia. Khaled el-Masri was held in this room by Macedonian security officials for 23 days in January 2004 before being handed over to the CIA and flown to Afghanistan. 


Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.

Offices of Sportsflight, Long Island, New York. Sportsflight Airways was one of three brokers who assisted the CIA in procuring planes for prisoner transport. Initially reliant on a very few aircraft, the CIA in later years expanded the roster of planes it used in an effort to prevent plane spotters from observing patterns in aircraft movement. Brokers helped the agency to locate business jets of different sizes at short notice.

Copyright Edmund Clark. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.