Chalmers Johnson Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Last Days of the American Republic: Conversation with Chalmers Johnson, President, Japan Policy Research Institute; March 7, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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In your book you [mention in] an aside the plane spotters. You were president of a plane-spotting association in the United States, so this is something you know and do. These are people who watch planes, and they became key to our understanding of the renditions and all these secret planes ...

Rendition is kept totally secret. I mean, that is the world of abducting people off the streets of Milan, or Stockholm, or wherever it might be, flying them off to a detention center that we know about, or one of our own in a foreign country, where they will unquestionably be tortured. One of our main CIA officials in the Middle East had said, "If you just want a good, hard torture interrogation, you send them to Jordan. If you want them to disappear you send them to Egypt. " That's what we do.

Nobody knew anything about this. It was as under wraps as could be, and you should understand these are not foreign captures of American fugitives to be returned to American justice. This is instead a clandestine activity carried out by the Department of Operations within the CIA. The CIA made some monumental blunders in the things they were doing, one of which [was that] they did these flights around the world via civil aviation, apparently not understanding that there is no place with more eyes awake, 24 hours a day, than any international airport. Hundreds of people that are watching them.

Among the people watching, which is the way the case began to be broken, were something called airplane spotters. They go back to World War II, to the blitz in Britain. There was a very famous magazine published with official sanction by the Temple Press called the Aeroplane Spotter that is still regarded as one of the great sources of all time on the Luftwaffe, on the 8th Air Force, on the Royal Air Force. What we're looking at here is airplane types, obviously, but then you begin to look at registrations, at squadron markings, at serial numbers, you start putting this stuff together. [If] you get a database, you can infer the number of particular type, and things of this sort. It's now getting harder and harder to do because runways are not quite as accessible as they once were, though the new Japanese Olympus camera has a lens that goes perfectly through a chain link fence. But you stand out at the end of runways with binoculars and cameras and you photograph the airplanes landing, watching them going around. And a group of spotters at Shannon Airport in Ireland called the Shannon Peace Campers outed one of the first planes flying people to Guantanamo Bay, and then you started tracing that down -- it's easy once you've got the registration numbers, it's all on the internet, to start finding out who allegedly owns this, and discover that it's owned by a company that has no employees, that the addresses are all post office boxes in northern Virginia, near Langley, that the officers of the company are clearly fake, they are men who have Social Security cards that were issued when they were in their fifties -- this is an almost certain sign of a new identity being created. And the moment one gets outed, the registration changes overnight.

That's the way it started. Then some other smart journalists picked it up and finally, it ended up [as a] huge scandal, the "spies who came in from the hot tub," twenty-five CIA agents now under indictment in Italy for pinching this imam off the streets of Milan, flying him to Ramstein Air Base, then off to Cairo where he was unquestionably tortured. And these were felonies committed on Italian territory, but it was then revealed that our twenty-five spies that were carrying out this operation were staying in the Principe Di Savoia in Milan at $500 a night, that they ran up bills of $150,000 for just hotel rooms, then they went for vacations on the Tuscan coast and to Venice afterwards. The CIA station chief in Milan had already bought a house to retire in, in Asti -- lovely part of the world!

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