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.
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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