By Barbara Koeppel in Consortium News
Torture at CIA secret sites is illegal. So too is the practice of the CIA transporting suspects to other countries where torture tactics are commonplace.
To expose and halt such goings-on, members of Stop Torture Now and Code Pink gathered last November at a rural airport in Smithfield, N.C., about 40 miles from Raleigh. Their target was Aero Contractors, a charter airline company. The activists insist that from this bucolic setting and another small airport in Kinston, N.C., called Global Transpark (GTP), Aero runs ‘torture taxis”secret rendition flights for the CIA
The activists say they don’t want this dirty business starting on their turf. ‘Aero uses runways and hangars paid for with our tax dollars,’ they argue. The activists cite a $9 million state bond and $650,000 in federal funds secured last fall by Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., to extend Smithfield’s runway.
The activists also note that Aero’s rent to Global Transpark (GTP) is just $.05 a square foot. Since Aero leases five acres’218,000 square feet’it’s just $10,890 a year. Moreover, since GTP gave Aero a credit for the $60,000 the company spent to ‘upfit’ its hangar, Aero will park free for over five years. Someone is footing the bill, the activists argue, and that someone is the taxpayer.
Aero’s planes stop first at Dulles or at CIA facilities in Virginia to pick up flight plans, then fly to Ireland to refuel, and from there to countries such as Britain, Italy, Sweden, Pakistan, Germany, Bosnia, Macedonia, Morocco and Turkey to collect the suspects. On the final lap, they deliver the human cargo for interrogation to countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan and until last year, Uzbekistan’all cited in U.S. State Department reports as having unclean hands when it comes to human rights.
The flights have been documented by Amnesty International and the Council of Europe (COE) Parliamentary Assembly on Human Rights in 2006 reports. To verify the dates and routes, investigators have used a global network of ‘plane spotters’ who stake out positions near runways where they photograph Aero take-offs and landings, and they write down the tail numbers of the otherwise unmarked craft. They then match the numbers with airport and aircraft logs obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
In its April report, the COE described Aero and other civilian charter companies as part of a ‘global spider’s web.’
Why the front companies? To maintain deniability about renditions and secret prisons, the CIA contracts with Aero to fly the planes. As part of the ruse, the craft are registered as ‘owned’ by shell companies: None list boards of directors, phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Their only identifications are post office box numbers. Moreover, the names change nearly every year. Thus, the Boeing 737 that Aero ‘leases’ were ‘owned’ by Stevens Leasing Company in 2001, ‘sold’ to Premier Executives in 2002, and ‘re-sold’ to Keeler and Tate Management in 2004. Each time, new tail numbers are painted over the old, to make the planes harder to track.
Also, the CIA uses civilian charter airlines because, under international law, private companies don’t need to reveal the nature of their trips to the countries where they refuel or fly over, while military planes must declare the names of their crews, flight plans, passengers and cargo. As a civilian charter, Aero is not asked for this information.
Another clue: According to Amnesty International, Aero has ‘CALP’ rights (Civil Aircraft Landing Permits)’enjoyed by just 10 other charter companies’which allow it to land at U.S. military bases around the globe.
However, as a veteran intelligence agent told me, ‘these tactics, like having supposedly private companies do the flying and changing the owners’ names and craft numbers, are so sloppy that they are completely transparent.’
He explained that ‘if the CIA leased planes with a company to really perform an air cargo service it wouldn’t feel compelled to continually change the names of the owners and numbers.’
In Uzbekistan, the flights were common knowledge. Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2003-2004, said, ‘Premier Executives flew dozens of detainees from Kabul to Tashkent, probably Uzbeks or Uzbek nationals living in Afghanistan. The flights were part of an international web of transporting people, the torture end of the operation, since the Americans handed them over to the SNB’the [Uzbek] national security secret police. After this, they went off the radar screen, not seen again.’
How did Murray know? ‘Few westerners live in Tashkent and the city is small so everyone knows everyone else. I knew Premier’s ground crew, who I believed to be CIA operatives. I just assumed Premier was owned by the CIA and that it was based in one of the Carolinas. And I thought they assumed that I assumed it,’ he explained.
The British diplomat told me he chatted with the men about once a week for over a year in a bar frequented by westerners. He noted that they weren’t particularly secretive.
‘They would say ‘things were difficult today,’ or that it was ‘hard work getting them off the plane.’ This was casual conversation after work,’ Murray recalled.
Back in the U.S., on the subject of renditions, the CIA and the Bush administration neither confirmed nor denied that CIA ground and flight crews were involved. Aero didn’t respond to a request for comment on this article.
The U.S. government flatly denies it engages in torture. In December 2005, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice stated, ‘The U.S. does not permit or condone torture’or transport detainees from one country to another for the purpose of torture.’ She added, ‘where appropriate, the U.S. seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.’
Mounting evidence, however, suggests the contrary. Indeed, in the ‘global war on terror,’ torture is very much on the table. Amnesty International, the Council of Europe and Human Rights Watch describe case after case of terror suspects held incommunicado in secret detention centers, tortured, and kept out of the reach of the International Red Cross, lawyers or human rights groups. The United Nations human rights panel is also convinced of the abuses and demanded in July that the U S. close its secret prisons.