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Aero's Cloaks and Daggers

By Barbara Koeppel
August 26, 2006

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.

'Spider's Web'

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.”

Secret Police

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.

'Lucky Ones'

The groups base some of their findings on stories told by the “lucky” ones, detainees who were finally released after one to three years at CIA “black sites” or in third countries, due to lack of evidence. Though the detainees never met in prison, their sagas are remarkably similar.

In horrific detail, the former detainees describe medieval-type shackles suspending them from cages, walls or ceilings; also, knifings all over their bodies, electric shock, beatings, extreme cold and heat, water-boarding, which simulates drowning, sleep and food deprivation, noise bombardment, weeks of undiluted darkness, cells little more than dirt holes, and repeated interrogations demanding they confess to facts that many of them don’t know.

Moazzam Begg, a Muslim born and raised in the United Kingdom, was held for three years in U.S.-run prisons beginning in 2002. He was seized by the CIA at his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he and his family were living. Bound, hooded and stuffed in a car trunk, he was flown to Afghanistan, where he was put in Kandahar prison and then in another facility at Bagram before being taken to Guantanamo, Cuba, until his release in 2005. He recounted his ordeal in a book, “Enemy Combatant.”

The reason for Begg’s incarceration? With his wife and daughter, Begg had traveled to Afghanistan to work on education and water projects in 2001, then moved to Pakistan once the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began after the 9/11 attacks.

On a “Democracy Now” broadcast in July 2006, Begg asked, “What did I do to harm the U.S.? All their claims were based on airy accusations, not proof.”  

While in Bagram and Kandahar, Begg was hog-tied in an animal-type position, kicked, chained to the floor for hours, beaten, and mostly kept in darkness for 11 months. The worst, he said, was listening to a woman screaming in a cell next to him—whom he believed could be his wife—and witnessing the deaths of two detainees.

Redefining Torture

As Begg and hundreds of other terror suspects were shuffling through this shadowy network of prisons, the Bush administration was working to redefine “torture,” so the legal term would apply only to mistreatment causing “organ failure or worse.” The administration also was pushing an amendment to ensure that the U.S. military, CIA operatives and others couldn’t be tried for inflicting “cruel and degrading punishment” on detainees, as outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.

Larry Wilkerson, an Army veteran of 31 years and former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said the violation of traditional standards on torture were not just “the work of a few bad apples,” as a 2005 Department of Defense report claimed, but administration policy.

In the Neiman Watchdog, Wilkerson wrote, “There have been dozens of homicides and over 100 deaths in U.S. custody” and “documents make it clear that Vice President Richard Cheney’s office bears responsibility for creating an environment conducive to acts of torture.

“There is enough evidence for a soldier of long service to know that what started with [Bush administration lawyers] John Yoo, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Hayes and others, all under the watchful and willing eye of the Vice President, went down through the Secretary of Defense to the commanders in the field and created pressures that led to violating longstanding practice and law.

“It had to be policy, since a variety of people in a variety of units at different times with different detainees (a majority of whom in every place were indisputably innocent of being terrorists) were handled by soldiers, Marines, CIA and contractors, abused and even murdered. Can the behavior of such disparate groups be explained by any other theory then that they all thought they were doing what they were supposed to do?”

Former detainee Begg also contended that the abuse was systemic and not, as the DOD report claimed, the work of misguided, over-zealous, lower-level guards. “When some of the most powerful men in the world call you the scum of the earth and murderers,” Begg said, “lower-level soldiers think they have carte blanche to do what they like.” 

Bad Intelligence

Another key issue has been the value of information obtained through these techniques. Current and former intelligence agents say torture as a tool to obtain information is poor or even worthless, since suspects will invent any story to stop the pain.

The case of Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi is instructive. In November 2005, ABC News reported that, according to CIA sources, al Libbi, who was caught and subjected to ever harsher tactics “finally broke down after being water-boarded and left in his cold cell overnight, where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.” At that point, he told interrogators what they wanted to hear—that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use bio-chemical weapons.

Soon after, the Bush Administration publicized this information gem about Iraq’s WMD and made it part of the rationale for invading Iraq.

CIA sources told ABC News it was established later that Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment. By then, it was too late. The war had begun. 

In fact, despite decades of denial from U.S. officials that they were complicit in Cold War-era torture, facts—obtained in congressional hearings years later—revealed a darker side of U.S. collaboration with regimes that committed atrocities.

During the Cold War, one U.S. administration after another supported repressive regimes, as in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Iran, Angola and South Africa, where torture and extra-judicial executions were common. In some, U.S. intelligence helped locate suspects and supplied equipment to the human rights abusers.

Legal Challenges

Recently, however, as more information has surfaced about the use of such tactics in the war on terror, elected officials in the United States and in Europe are beginning to condemn these practices.

After the Abu Ghraib prison scandals, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., drafted an amendment outlawing torture in U.S.-controlled prisons, which the Senate passed by a vote of 90-9. Moreover, it was endorsed by Colin Powell and 28 retired senior military officers.

In Britain, Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, said he’s been lobbying against the UK role in renditions for two years. However, he claims the British government has done everything to keep the public in the dark. Technically, the UK and other European countries can preserve their non-involvement legend since the planes’ crews do not disembark.

In a May 2006 Guardian article, Tyrie insisted the UK “should tell the U.S. to stop carrying out extraordinary rendition instead of relying on misleading assurances from Condoleezza Rice” that countries with poor human rights records have promised to obey the law.

And in March 2006, the Guardian reported that British Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, finally admitted that two CIA-chartered craft landed 14 times at military bases in 2003 and 2004, although he and other officials claimed earlier they had no record of the flights or that records had been destroyed. The article noted that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw still says his government is “unaware” of such flights landing in the UK or using its airspace.

On the Ground

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the anti-torture activists have not been welcomed by Aero or by local officials.

In April, when five Code Pink members went to the Raleigh office of Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., to complain about Aero, her staff aides said they would look into the issue. Hearing nothing, the group telephoned a month later, urging that Sen. Dole call for a moratorium on all Aero flights in the spirit of the McCain-Graham amendment. Despite follow-up e-mails, they are still waiting for an answer.

When they contacted the office of Rep. Etheridge, who represents the county where Smithfield airport is located, his staff was not interested.

When Stop Torture Now members spoke to Franklin Freeman, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley’s chief of staff, he told them the issue was a non-starter: “Since President Bush says we don’t torture, we don’t need to look into it. It’s not up to us to investigate a company that is following the law.”

When the activists delivered a “citizens’ indictment” to Johnston County commissioners, county manager Rick Hester told them, “We are not in the habit of driving out business.”

When the activists asked some North Carolina judges to intervene, the judges said they could do nothing without a formal case, and told them to notify the FBI.

When a North Carolina State University employee tried to hand the “indictment” to Aero staff, he was met at the door by a local police officer with a stun gun.

When Steven Edelstein, a North Carolina lawyer with Stop Torture Now, approached the Global Transpark airfield, he was told “the board and executive director believe it is not worth asking for an investigation, when compared to GTP’s economic development mission.” The board is chaired by Gov. Easley. 

Given the official determination to dodge the rendition issue, the anti-torture groups will be tracking planes for quite some time.


Barbara Koeppel is a Washington-based investigative reporter.


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