A U.S. fleet for outsourcing torture?

More evidence of aircraft used in the Bush administration's secretive program for rendering terrorist suspects to foreign countries.

By Mark Follman
Published February 23, 2005 12:17AM (EST)

Beyond the disturbing testimonials that have come to light in recent weeks, there's more evidence of the Bush administration's use of "extraordinary rendition," a secret program under which suspects in the war on terrorism are shipped off to clandestine U.S. military bases, or extradited to foreign countries with abysmal human-rights records where the suspects are likely to be tortured during interrogation.

The U.S. government's use of a Gulfstream V jet was documented last year; now Newsweek reports that it's obtained evidence of another, larger aircraft used for the program. Previously unpublished flight plans, says the magazine, indicate "the CIA has been operating a Boeing 737 as part of a top-secret global charter servicing clandestine interrogation facilities used in the war on terror. The Boeing's flight information, detailed to the day, seems to confirm the claims of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, who says he was abducted by American operatives and in early 2004 flown to Afghanistan. Together with previously disclosed flight plans of a smaller Gulfstream V jet, the Boeing 737's travels are further evidence that a global 'ghost' prison system, where terror suspects are secretly interrogated, is being operated by the CIA."

FAA records, the report adds, show that at the time of the flights the Boeing jet was owned by Premier Executive Transport Services, "a now-defunct Massachusetts-based company that U.S. intelligence sources acknowledge fits the profile of a suspected CIA front."

The Bush administration has openly and repeatedly denounced torture, though it has tried to sidestep discussion of whether it has actually transferred detainees to foreign countries known to torture prisoners. Here's Scott McClellan responding to a question about such extraditions during a White House press briefing on Jan. 10:

McCLELLAN: First of all, I think the President has made our view very clear when it comes to torture. The President does not condone torture, and he would never authorize the use of torture. So I think it --

REPORTER: That's not what I asked, though.

McCLELLAN: Understood. So I think I want to make that very clear right off the top. Our policy is to adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations. There are very clear laws in the United States regarding torture, and there are clear laws at the international level regarding torture. And our policy is to adhere to that.

But a growing body of evidence -- the accumulating detainee testimonials, the evidence of dedicated aircraft -- says that the U.S. is not adhering to those laws. Now, there's at least some legislative movement afoot to do away with the wiggle room that the administration has been using to mask its policy. (For its part, the Senate intelligence committee has been sluggish on the issue at best.) On Tuesday, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University voiced support for a bill introduced in Congress last week by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. From the group's statement:

"The United States continues to flout international and domestic law when it 'renders' suspects to countries where they are tortured and sometimes 'disappeared.' The Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act, introduced by Rep. Markey on February 17, 2005, reaffirms existing standards against extraordinary rendition, and gives those norms teeth by explicitly preventing renditions carried out at the hands of the U.S. Government and its agents. Extraordinary renditions are contrary to U.S. law and policy, as well as treaties that the U.S. has ratified, most notably the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The proposed bill closes potential loopholes in earlier legislation implementing the Torture Convention."

The NYU watchdog also has a detailed analysis of international and domestic legal standards applicable to extraordinary renditions, in a report titled "Torture by Proxy," available here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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