Artists take aim at hidden world of modern US surveillance

'Covert Operations’ exhibition brings FOIA requests and dogged investigative fieldwork into museum setting

Detail from "Six CIA Agents Wanted in Connection with the Abduction of Abu Omar from Milan, Italy" by artist Trevor Paglen, 2007.
Trevor Paglen

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - While walking to the mosque in Milan where he was imam, radical Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was pepper sprayed and bundled into a van by Central Intelligence Agency operatives working in tandem with Italy's security services.

Omar was flown in a Learjet from Aviano Air Base to Egypt where he was held without trial for four years, during which time he said he was interrogated, tortured with electricity and abused.

Grainy, off-center Xeroxed copies of the passport photo pages of six CIA officers wanted in connection with the abduction of Omar back in February 2003 now hang in a groundbreaking exhibition that seeks to make visible the opaque workings of the United States' national security apparatus.

"Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns," which opens Saturday at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, brings together works by 13 artists that lift the veil on the clandestine world of illegal rendition flights, Hunter drones, spy satellites, border technologies and terrorist profiling that has flourished in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Upon close inspection, Trevor Paglen's "Untitled (Reaper Drone)," 2010, reveals an all-but-invisible MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle which is used in combat in Afghanistan, Pakistan and along the U.S. borders.
Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen reportedly indirectly obtained copies of the passport pages – reproduced in the show as individually framed inkjet prints - from hotels where the alleged agents stayed in Italy after an investigation by Milan police using cell phone records, credit card purchases, hotel bills and travel documents reconstructed their movements. The probe led to the conviction in absentia of more than 20 U.S. agents.

“These artists have each undertaken a weighty responsibility: To make the invisible visible for the rest of us,” curator Claire C. Carter wrote in the prologue to a book accompanying the show. “Bearing witness visually can be more successful than a thousand words.”

The visual artists in the exhibition, including Paglen, use a variety of tools such as the Freedom of Information Act, government archives and their own dogged fieldwork to reveal some of the government's covert activities along with its haunting missteps in the weeks before the 9/11 attacks.

Holzer, a conceptual artist, reproduces a heavily redacted report sent by Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams to his superiors in July 2001, warning that Osama bin Laden may have been sending students to U.S. flight schools who would be "in a position in the future to conduct terror activity against civil aviation targets." It flagged the investigation of Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, a Prescott, Arizona, flight-school student known for his connections to Al-Qaeda. The unheeded report, which Holzer splashes across seven panels in a work titled "Phoenix yellow and white," was a key piece of evidence drawn on by the 9/11 Commission Report while looking into failures to prevent the attacks.

For "Phoenix yellow white (detail)," 2006, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer draws on an overlooked FBI report that called attention to Osama bin Laden's activities in the months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jenny Holzer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The sprawling growth of national security programs is obliquely captured in photographs by Paglen, an artist, geographer and writer who probes the intersection between the secret state and the visible world. A picture of a white slash scored across a star-splashed night sky records the fleeting arc of Lacrosse/Onyx II, a radar-imaging reconnaissance satellite able to peer through clouds. The technology’s existence remained classified until 2008.

His work "Untitled (Reaper Drone)" is at first glance an impressionistic photograph of a crimson- and violet-suffused twilight snapped near Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Close inspection reveals an all-but-invisible MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle which is used in combat in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other conflict zones, and, in an unarmed surveillance role, by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to monitor its land and sea borders.

David Taylor's photographs, such as "Seismic Sensor, Texas," 2007, from the series "Working the Line," capture the security buildup along the U.S. southwest border in the aftermath of 9/11. Courtesy of the artist and James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
David Taylor

Homeland security efforts are captured in photographer David Taylor’s images of the infrastructure that materialized along the porous southwest border in the wake of 9/11. In one, a rifle-toting Border Patrol agent watches two figures through a peephole in the rusted border fence. In another, an agent stands over a metal case packed with electronics and connected to a seismic sensor designed to alert to the footfalls of intruders from Mexico.

"In many ways, the post-9/11 security moment is this definitive act of trying to secure the border," Taylor said of his work capturing the buildup along the frontier from California to the southern tip of Texas. "It's where the abstraction of bureaucratic negotiations actually come into being in the real world."

As well as deploying border fencing, CIA rendition teams and Hunter drones armed with Hellfire missiles, the U.S. security state has also turned its attention to locating the enemies within — a subject Bangladesh-born U.S.-artist Hasan Elahi knows from personal experience.

A multimedia artist specializing in technology, Elahi was stopped by the FBI at Detroit airport in June 2002 as he returned from the Netherlands. He was subjected to interviews and nine back-to-back polygraph tests after a tip falsely identified him as an Arab who had left the country after the attacks, leaving explosives in a Tampa, Florida, lockup.

Subsequently placed on the government's Terrorist Watchlist database, Elahi responded by uploading his location to the web in real time for the past 12 years, together with receipts detailing his purchases and thousands of photographs of his meals, the airports he transits and even the bathrooms he uses, in an exhaustive Orwellian act of self-surveillance.

"This is my way of reacting to this situation and holding up a mirror to it," Elahi said of his "Tracking Transience" project. "We all have some record of where we have been and what we are doing ... I am hoping that as the viewer is reenacting the role of the FBI agent they come to the realization that that could be themselves."

Hasan Elahi has been uploading his location to the web in real time for the past 12 years as part of his "Tracking Transience" multimedia project, 2002 – ongoing.
Hasan Elahi

CIA Director John Brennan recently said that winning back the public's trust would "make all our jobs easier and better." Despite its sustained revelations of the workings of the secret state, in actions that break and skirt the rule of law and frequently test cherished values of ethical conduct, the show was welcomed by at least one former spy.

"It's very significant given the kind of questioning that there is of the various techniques that have been used in intelligence collection, not only today, but historically," said Richard Post, a former CIA agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers

"The fact that we have a group of very motivated citizens that are interested in trying to make sure that government is trying to do the right thing for all of us in a way that's in keeping with our national traditions and heritages and freedoms ... (is) very healthy."

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