WEEKEND EDITION JUNE 1-3, 2012
Top Secret? Ask a Romanian Cab Driver
Those CIA Prisons
Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
Intelligence agencies throughout the world could save a lot of money by simply interviewing taxi drivers. They know the secrets of their cities and countries. Somehow, they know the truth whether or not it has been officially denied or acknowledged by their governments. There was some news this week about secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and that reminded me of a taxi driver I met six years ago.
I was planning my first trip to Romania to attend a wedding in Bucharest in January 2006. A couple of months before my trip, I set up a Google News alert to send me links whenever Romania was mentioned in an English language news story. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but rather I just wanted to get a sense of current events in Romania.
Included in the Google News links were some reports that the CIA had a super-secret interrogation site for Iraqi and Afghan prisoners near the Black Sea city of Constanta in Romania. There were firm denials, of course, from both the Romanian and American governments that such a place existed, or ever did.
I had almost forgotten these news items. I had read the articles about the secret American base in Romania, but I was not particularly interested. (I’m still trying tofigure out the Kennedy assassination, so I don’t need another grand global mystery.)
I was living in France at the time. I flew from Nice to Bucharest on Lufthansa, changing planes in Munich. Glancing at the passports of other passengers going through Romanian immigration, I was the only American on the flight.
As I left the terminal, a taxi driver asked me in German if I wanted a taxi. “Ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I said. I don’t speak German. He could tell by my awful accent that I spoke English and he correctly assumed that I was an American.
Then, switching to English, the taxi driver surprised me. He offered to drive me to Constanta, about a two-hour trip. “Straight to base. Fixed price. But you tell me how much to write on receipt. You take tall Russian blonde, if you like. Nice girl. Medical student.” With a conspiratorial grin, he added, “Girl not on receipt.”
I explained that I was not going to Constanta and I did not want to meet the tall Russian blonde. We agreed on a fare to the center of Bucharest.
Constanta was where the rumored secret prison was located. Super secret. Mainstream U.S. media had mostly ignored reports of these “black sites”, secret prisons. In the European media and American alternative news websites, there was sketchy coverage about “rendition” of terrorist prisoners being held at secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. (By the way, what government public relations genius came up with using the word “rendition” for moving prisoners to secret prisons?)
So, I was amazed that this Romanian taxi driver not only knew of this supposedly top secret American base, but he assumed that I, as an American, must be going there. Plus, he knew enough about American expense reporting procedures to suggest that the receipt for the trip could be padded with extras, such as a nice Russian medical student.
Was my experience just an isolated incident? Do taxi drivers really know the location of secret U.S. facilities? Are U.S. government employees and contractors always completely honest when filing expense reports? Have you and I, fellow American taxpayers, ever paid for the company of a nice Russian medical student? Of course, I could guess, but I don’t really have answers to these questions.
I was also reminded of my trip to Bucharest with the recent events surrounding the Secret Service and some hookers in Venezuela. Just how stupid can a government employee be to argue with a prostitute in a foreign country while on official business to protect the President of the United States? The last I read was that the director of the Secret Service ordered a full investigation, which means that the paperwork will be shuffled from desk to desk until the incident is forgotten. If you want to know the truth of what happened in Caracas, my bet is that you could ask a taxi driver.
Maybe President Obama should put a taxi driver on retainer. Just this week, President Obama offended the entire country of Poland, plus millions of Polish-Americans, by referring to “Polish death camps”, as opposed to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland. Poles consider that a blood libel. I am certain that if Obama had checked his speech with any taxi driver in Poland, the offense could have been avoided.
The timing of the “Polish death camps” gaffe this week is made worse by the news that the CIA had a secret prison in Poland. Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, the former head of Poland’s intelligence service, is accused of helping build a secret prison for the CIA in a remote area of Poland. It is alleged that foreign prisoners in the prison were tortured in connection with America’s global war on terror.
As in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, rumors have been floating around Poland for years about a secret prison, though denied by the highest authorities. An official investigation into a CIA-run prison in Poland started in 2008, a year after Prime Minister Donald Tusk took office.
It looks like President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have some work to do in regaining trust in Poland. I suggest a good start would be going to Warsaw and having a beer with a taxi driver.
Ken Smith, a semi-retired American, has lived in Mexico for the past five years, after four years in France, a year in Denmark, and another year bouncing around Europe. Ken is planning to leave Mexico, but he doesn’t yet know his next stop. Some place affordable and peaceful. Croatia? Vietnam? Portugal? Chile? His blog, “Leaving America,” is at http://kvsmith.com. Ken managed the website for his friend, Joe Bageant, who died a year ago. Two months ago, a collection of Joe’s online essays was published, titled Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The Best of Joe Bageant, for which Ken wrote an introduction and short biography of Joe. This introduction was published here on CounterPunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/02/waltzing-at-the-doomsday-ball-2/.