Crofton Black - How does the world work?

Crofton Black ended up as an investigator almost by chance. With a background in English Literature and Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, he took an unexpected turn into investigating secret prisons and extraordinary renditions.

I liked digging around in libraries and archives and looking at the data of the past, these books that nobody really was interested in anymore that said something about how people thought five hundred years ago.

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About the speaker

Crofton Black is a writer and investigator. He is co-author of Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition and CIA Torture Unredacted, and works on technology and security topics for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. Before this he was a history of philosophy academic, specialising in theories of knowledge and interpretation. He has a PhD from the Warburg Institute, London and was a Humboldt Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. More info at https://www.crofton.black/

Transcript

How does the world work? You know, the world is very complicated, a lot of stuff going on. Practically any thing that you want to look at in terms of how the world works, what you'll find is that, you know, between points A and B, there's actually this whole kind of underground network of middlemen, enablers, supply chains, logistics, hubs, distributed systems – every kind of public facing endeavour, be it a government or a big company. There's all these other little things going on underneath. That's what's actually making stuff happen. Finding that stuff is like, what makes the world tick. And for every Amazon that everyone in the world has heard of, there's going to be a bunch of other companies sitting underneath it, making things happen that nobody's heard of.

My name is Crofton black. I'm an investigator. I work at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. I do research consultancy. I do litigation support and bits and pieces for other people who have investigative needs – a mixture of journalism and legal stuff and worked for NGOs. 

Me ending up as an investigator was an unexpected career move. Not really something I ever anticipated. My background was in Classics and English Literature – English, Latin, and Greek. And then in Medieval and Renaissance philosophy – I did a PhD in that. I worked for a time as a cataloguer of Islamic manuscripts for an art gallery. I worked later on as a book cataloguer for a book dealer in London. I kind of accidentally ended up with a job as an investigator at this NGO called Reprieve. They basically hired me as a – what they called at the time – a 'secret prisons and extraordinary renditions investigator. I was living in Berlin and a friend of mine sent me a job advert for this outfit called Reprieve. And she said, 'oh, why don't you, why don't you look at this? It sounds like it might suit you'. And I was like, well, yeah, it sounds really interesting, but I don't know anything about this stuff. I don't have any background in law. I don't have any background in NGOs. I've never worked for an NGO. Like, I know how to research stuff, but, you know, I don't really know anything else beyond that. 

And it might have been that was that except for I ran into someone at a party the next week who worked for the same NGO and we got talking and she said to me, 'why don't you apply for this job then, if you're interested in it'. And I said, no, that's a crazy idea. I said, I'm not going to apply for this job. But I said, if you guys need some like freelance support, if you need me to do some pro bono research work for you any time, just hit me up, I'll see if I can help you out. And they did. They were interested in this rumour that there had been a secret detention site in Mauritania. And I'd actually been to Mauritania on holiday, some years before. So I kind of like, I at least knew where it was on the map. And I had some kind of concept of what it was like as a country. So they got me in to spend a few days looking at Google Earth pictures of Mauritania and trying to kind of see if I could synthesize from the various press accounts, was there like a field, a diameter or whatever, a circumference of interest, within which this secret prison site might have been. It was like a kind of very basic bit of open source investigation. So I did that and then I did a report on it for them. And then a few weeks later I did another thing for them. And then basically I went back to Berlin and I was like, just carrying on doing my thing. And, for whatever reason, some months later they called me up and they said, did I want a job? And I said, well, you know, the job for medieval philosophy graduates isn't the best job market at the moment. So I said, okay, yeah, why not? I'll make a leap of faith into the world of NGO investigating. 

It sort of should have been a big change, but it wasn't really that big a change because, mentally speaking, the research tools I was using were pretty much the same as before. It's like, you know, being a historian, how do you analyse evidence? How do you, um, how do you locate sources? How do you assess sources? What is the kind of cause and effect of a certain phenomenon? And also, fundamentally, the importance of chronology. Like, as an investigator, I'm a chronology obsessive. 

So when I was working with the book dealer, basically I would go in in the morning and into the office in central London, and there'd be a pile of books on the desk. And they could be about anything, you know, there could be like, this is a first edition of some obscure eighteenth-century scientific work about optics. And this one here is a piece of early 1920s surrealist artwork. So basically I was used to kind of moving around, I move around and in different subject areas and I'm like, okay, so today I'm working on optics and tomorrow I'm working on Surrealism and the day after is some religious controversies. And in that sense, it wasn't that weird to me that I would end up, you know, today I'm looking at prisons in Afghanistan and tomorrow I'm looking at flight logistics. And the day after I'm looking at satellite photos of Mauritania. I already kind of was used to working in that way, in a sense. 

I liked digging around in libraries and archives. And I guess looking at the data of the past, you know, these books that nobody really was interested in anymore, that said something about how people thought five hundred years ago or whatever. I was drawn to, let's say, some of the more, kind of esoteric aspects of the history of thought at that time – mysticism; I was interested in Kabbalah. I was interested in, um, how people tried to express their ideas of humanity's place in the universe, in these kind of strange coded manuscripts, where they jumbled up all the letters of the Bible or the Torah or whatever, and tried to extract codes from them. I was interested in cracking these codes, trying to understand what was going on in these very obscure books. There's quite a strong analogy in my mind between certain medieval manuscripts that I spent many hours in the library looking at, trying to understand, and the process of understanding, say, fifty thousand lines of flight data. When you're looking for that one particular pattern in it, that is going to make sense of an entire problem. These things have Eureka moments, when the mind suddenly kind of eventually suddenly has an insight that has been avoiding you for sometimes weeks or months or longer. Those moments occur. They’ve occurred in my academic life, when I've been looking at a manuscript for weeks and I can't figure out what a certain word is. And then suddenly I see it and I'm laying the whole page makes sense. And they have occurred in my investigative life when, you know, I've been looking at a whole set of flight data and trying to figure out why I can't see a plane to a certain place on a certain day when there's meant to be one, and then suddenly I understand why it is. 

But the main difference between what I do now and what I did when I initially started as an investigator professionally, is that now I write stuff more often. You know, obviously writing comes in different genres, so back in the day I wrote very, um, let's say, technical things about Renaissance philosophy. And now I sometimes write quite technical things about flight logistics, but I also write what you more broadly call ‘stories’, that fit into the criteria of what the world of news media or whatever thinks are stories. So those are things that have a certain structure, you know, obviously you think that being, being a journalist, a lot of it is about like, so what's the story. And this is often quite baffling for somebody like me, who didn't come up in journalism as such. I have to put myself in the mindset of my editors or other people who are perhaps more naturally journalists than I am. 

I think a lot of things are interesting, which apparently other people don't think are interesting, rightly or wrongly. Despite the differences between working as, say, a lawyer’s assistant – basically doing investigation work for a legal case – seems like a very different thing from being a journalist. It is very different. But they have similarities and I mean, one thing that is similar between them is they don't, they're not, they don't really like ambiguity. They're not very comfortable with too much complexity. They like things to be a chain of events that makes sense, that leads to a particular conclusion. Or that leads at least to a recognizable narrative. But of course this is often not really the case. You know, life is very complicated. When you work in investigations obviously you come across a lot of quite unusual and weird stuff. And some of that is the thing that you're investigating might in itself be a complicated thing. But the other aspect is, you know, you inevitably, you rub up against all the kinds of usual human complexities and contingencies and weirdnesses of how people's lives work and strange coincidences and things that don't really make sense, that you can't really deal with, prepare for, whatever, you can't fit them into your narrative.

And those things, generally speaking, have to be jettisoned or brushed under the carpet, which is sometimes a pity because they spoil, you know, those things say stuff about life. They say stuff about the world. Whatever. 

When, for example, I wrote my book on rendition flights that I did with the artist Edmund Clark, one of the decisions we took in making that book was that we actually wanted to showcase some of this complexity and some of, you know, put in the things that weren't ever going to get put in the legal filings or the journalism, because they were like, you know, these are the dead ends. And these are the things that we can't explain. And this is the – we got this far on this particular line of thought and then no further, or it just led us back to where we started again. So we actually structured the book to reflect that experience. We did that partly because we wanted to do something different from what standardly you need to do when you work in this area.

There are moments along the way where colleagues and I have managed to figure things out. And some of those moments have been kind of surprising. When I was working on rendition flights and secret detention stuff we had a lucky break. I was just sitting there Googling company names and wondering, I do this every few weeks, nothing interesting comes up, you know, is anything ever going to change? And so one week I did it and something came up and I was like, oh, that's interesting, there's been some litigation around a couple of these companies. So I was like, I wonder what that means. This is very early, I guess, in my investigative career. I called up this guy, Steve, I was working with, I was like, ‘Steve, you know, how do I get a court file from some courts in the US. what do I have to do?’ And he's like, ‘oh, okay’. He's like, ‘I'll give them a bell’. And then, to cut a long story short, we got this box of stuff, FedExed over from the court, and we opened it up and it was just like this mad treasure trove of invoices for rendition flights. All the kinds of blanks that we'd been scratching our heads over, puzzling over, like, why don't we understand this thingnand that thing, and that thing. Like practically, not entirely, but practically the answers to it all were in this set of invoices. 

That's an unpredictable event, basically. Arguably you have to put in the graft for those moments to occur, because otherwise you don't know, you don't see them when they're there. You have to have done the background work to be able to understand when you come across one of these life changing moments that that is what it is. So we were in the office and we're a sort of small cash-strapped organization. And there was a lawyer sitting in the room listening in on our conversation. He just turned around and he was like, ‘it’s chump change, chump change, get it done’. I always remember that phrase, because sometimes you've just got to make the investment and be like, this is worth it, we’re going to spend a grand on this, it's going to change everything. And it did. 

We work in kind of project streams. So there'll be a project stream that I sit in within, previously. It was this thing we called Shadow Wars. And now it's the project called Decision Machines. But within that we have a constant sort of process of discussion about what are we actually working on? You know, what's the story that was happening at the moment? What are the ones that we're thinking of trying to do afterwards? Cause I'm always sort of digging around and looking at sort of odd bits and pieces, and looking at court records and data sets., there is certain things, or I have  a sort of list of things that I haven't had time to look at, where I'm like, oh, you know, maybe one day I'll look into this thing a bit more. To an extent it's also about trying to do stuff that other people aren't doing. There's not that much point if you are, in my position, trying to compete with, for example, what the New York Times is doing. You know, I keep up to date on what I see in the media generally, what's on Twitter, what seems to be going on in certain areas. And I guess I'm trying to think about, what's the thing underneath all this that people aren't really talking about Cause there normally is something.

In my experience, a lot of it comes down to infrastructure. What is the hidden infrastructure that is underlying this series? You know, you might have two or three or a dozen stories about a particular thing, but what is the infrastructure underlying it that makes all these things happen? Why do things happen the way they do? That's what I gravitate towards basically. 

There was a lot of news going on about this - it was kind of like a political campaign in South Africa about so-called ‘white monopoly capital’. It was a pretty complicated backstory, but in essence there were very considerable corruption allegations that had been made at the ruling party. You know, the president, his connections to various businessmen. And there was a social media campaign that was launched to try and undermine these allegations. And the premise of the campaign was that the people that are complaining about the corruption in the government were, let’s say, white monopoly, capitalists. So they were people who were opposed to, you know, the new South Africa; they were reactionary; they were anti-ANC; they were basically bad people. So it was a way of deflecting attention from the corruption allegations, by making the people who were making those allegations, making them a target of a kind of social media smear campaign.

So that was the tip of the iceberg, if you like. But the thing that we were interested in at the time was okay, so how does this stuff actually work? We ended up finding a company – well we found several, but one in particular – that was doing this kind of Twitter amplification at scale and how they were doing it. And it turned out that they themselves had been implicated in some funny shenanigans going on around legal cases. And it just turned into an unusual and interesting story that had a lot of bits in and a lot of moving parts, a lot of ins and outs that said quite a lot about how the landscape of the internet actually functions. And more than I think we anticipated finding when we set out with quite a simple question, which was, ‘Did Bell Pottinger mastermind this campaign or not?’. We never really answered that question, but we did find a lot of other stuff along the way that was infrastructural. 

The renditions and black-site work. I mean, that's coming up to eleven years of work now. When I arrived at reprieve, very soon after I got there in fact, when I was completely ignorant and knew nothing about anything, we had a big meeting with various legal teams and the topic being essentially accountability litigation for secret detention in Europe. The media had revealed over time that there'd been three countries in Europe that had hosted secret detention sites for the CIA: Poland, Romania and Lithuania. There were three of us in the office at that time who were kind of roughly in this area. And we basically divided up between us, at random. So for whatever reason, I ended up with Lithuania. And the situation vis-a-vis Lithuania was a peculiar one because I'm talking in kind of 2010–2011 roughly, so already, by this time several people had done quite a lot of work around flight tracking, building up flight databases of planes associated with the CIA that had been carrying out prisoner transfers. This was a tried and tested technique that had been worked on by a whole lot of people. But the weird thing about it was that none of the records that anybody really had access to had any Lithuanian connection in them –there was a big black hole in the map.

The kind of starting point of my task at that time was: find the Lithuania flights. You know, we eventually found the Lithuania flights and that led to litigation. There was a European Court of Human Rights case of one of our clients. That was Aveda versus Lithuania. So that case got filed. There were various kind of other inquiries going on in the European parliament and elsewhere that we contributed to. In 2014, the long-awaited Senate report on – US Senate report on – the CIA’s detention system, that was published. It was the first time that anybody had actually provided  an official, complete list of the prisoners who'd been held in the CIA sites. Because prior to that, probably through the efforts of lawyers and journalists, NGOs and so on, several dozen had been identified. But there was never any kind of clarity really as to how many people we were missing and who they were, obviously, because we didn't know. 

And so the thing that the Senate Intelligence Committee report provided that was a first, was it provided a name for each of the individuals who'd been held in the black-site system, of which there were 119 or something. The insight that we had into that list was that basically we could take that list and we could essentially unredact it to get the dates that each of these people was moved in and out of the prison network. And we could then match that to our database of flights, which we'd been building up over the last five years or whatever. This was me and Sam Raphael, who I was working with from Westminster University. We accumulated all the public info we could about each of those individuals, started constructing our chronology. The Senate intelligence committee report had an appendix, which had all these names in a list. It was an obvious interpretation of that list, that it was a chronological list because some of the names were well known. And we obviously knew when those guys had been picked up and taken into the prison system. So it was a matter of figuring out, okay, someone who we don't know, we know that he's after this date and before that date, because we know that he's after this guy on the list and before that guy. 

What Sam Rafael figured out halfway through this process was that actually the way the report had been redacted, because it was written in a certain font, in a certain pitch, you could measure the blacked-out rectangles and they were consistent. They were applied consistently across the report, which meant that when you had a contextual piece of information that a certain blacked-out box represented, say, a month, then there's only twelve months and they all measure different lengths. So you could pretty much tell what the month was under that box. You could tell whether a digit was a single digit or a double digit. We could start to say quite confidently that, you know, a certain date was one to nine April, or ten to thirty-one May. We could cross-correlate all our information with this insight into how the redactions worked, which would point to where we were correct in terms of how we were building this chronology that we built. And it just kind of went on like that. And the more information and the more cross-correlations we made, the more specific the dates became. Fundamentally, it kind of opened up the programme as a whole, like with a can opener, you know what I mean? It really changed the level of the data and the specificity and the concreteness of what we were able to say about how that whole system functioned, basically. 

There's a lot of questions that you . . . that you never solve. And then there's some that you do. And there's a lot of projects that never see the light of day. And I mean, my computer is littered with, you know, half-done investigations. They weren't viable, they couldn't get finished, they got stuck at some point. All the stuff that I've done has come through experimentation, basically. That's how you stop it from actually being a failure, is you learn something methodological and then you take it onto the next thing. I'm constantly experimenting with, like, what can I do with Excel? What can I do with SQL? What can I do with Python? What can I do with forensic domain analysis? Or like, what can I – maybe you can just learn all this stuff. I don't know. But as far as my practice goes, I've learnt it all through trial and error. Trial and error has been on investigations that we've tried to do stuff, and for one reason and another, it hasn't worked out, but you kind of take the tools and move it forward and apply them somewhere else. And that's partly why it's so time consuming because you need to have the space and the time to do these experiments and see what happens. And like when they fail, ideally, it's not a disaster. Like if I got sacked from my job, every time an experiment failed, I'd have had like, you know, thirty or forty different jobs by now. If you had said to somebody ten years ago, ‘Please will you fund a decade-long investigation into CIA secret presence?’ They would have said, no, they would have said, no, you can have a two-year investigation, there you go.

I guess I have certain kinds of basic philosophies of investigation, which have sort of served in different contexts. The way I visualize it, normally there's a scaly carapace and then there's a soft underbelly. You know, the scaly carapace is quite well protected. You can't get in there. It might be classified secrets or it might be unavailable for whatever reason. And then the soft underbelly is like, somewhere where you can get in, where the same or similar information happens to exist. 

How do you find the soft underbelly? You have to understand the information flow. You have to understand the distributed system. If you understand how information is distributed throughout a system, you can hopefully understand like, where are the heavily guarded points and where are the relatively accessible points? And then maybe, if you're lucky, you have a better chance of finding the information you want.

I spoke to someone a few months ago, who was a computer systems designer. He's like, it's the way the world's going. Humans are not sufficiently afraid of complexity. For sure, there are people who are adept at turning that to their advantage. And there always will be, you know, it's like water flows into any crack that it can find. The reason they can do that is often that the systems are broken or too complex or have grown organically over time. And they're like now being used in ways that weren't previously imagined or in new contexts. So there's a lot of cracks for the water to flow into basically.

Credits

The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech. 

Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.

Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.

Music by Wael Eskandar.

Additional music is Comatose by Kai Engel and Delirium by Kai Engel both used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence.

Additional sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.

Illustration by Ann Kiernan


This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.