CIA's phantom air force

A fleet of private planes used in the war against terrorism erases any doubts about Bush policy for shipping off terrorist suspects to countries that torture them.

By Mark Follman
Published June 1, 2005 6:38PM (EDT)

Speaking of "dissembling" about the Bush administration and torture, amid yesterday's flurry of Deep Throat coverage you might have missed this lengthy New York Times report on the CIA's expanded fleet of private planes dedicated to the war on terrorism. The planes have been used for a variety of clandestine missions around the globe since 2001. But any doubts about a deliberate policy for their use in "rendering" terrorist suspects into the hands of foreign governments that practice torture -- policy planned and approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government -- should be wiped away, just like the FAA-required tail numbers that have disappeared or been replaced in remote, private hangars:

"Behind a surprisingly thin cover of rural hideaways, front companies and shell corporations that share officers who appear to exist only on paper, the CIA has rapidly expanded its air operations since 2001 as it has pursued and questioned terrorism suspects around the world," reported the Times. "An analysis of thousands of flight records, aircraft registrations and corporate documents, as well as interviews with former CIA officers and pilots, show that the agency owns at least 26 planes, 10 of them purchased since 2001. The agency has concealed its ownership behind a web of seven shell corporations that appear to have no employees and no function apart from owning the aircraft.

"The civilian planes can go places American military craft would not be welcome. They sometimes allow the agency to circumvent reporting requirements most countries impose on flights operated by other governments. ...

"Some of the CIA planes have been used for carrying out renditions, the legal term for the agency's practice of seizing terrorism suspects in one foreign country and delivering them to be detained in another, including countries that routinely engage in torture. The resulting controversy has breached the secrecy of the agency's flights in the last two years, as plane-spotting hobbyists, activists and journalists in a dozen countries have tracked the mysterious planes' movements."

Ultimately, analysis of the flight records only offers circumstantial evidence regarding CIA activities -- but it lends compelling support to several otherwise unsubstantiated reports. In one case, Omar Deghayes, a Libyan-born prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay, said through his lawyer that four Libyan intelligence officers arrived to interrogate him in his cell in September 2003. "Aviation records cannot corroborate his claim that the men questioned him and threatened his life," reported the Times. "But they do show that a Gulfstream V registered to one of the CIA shell companies flew from Tripoli, Libya, to Guantanamo on Sept. 8, the day before Mr. Deghayes reported first meeting the Libyan agents. The plane stopped in Jamaica and at Dulles before returning to the Johnston County Airport, flight records show."

Detainees held in U.S. custody have been accused of, and in some cases have been proven to be lying, according to FBI documents -- but clearly someone like Deghayes could not have had any knowledge of flight logs that would bolster his claims.

"The same Gulfstream," noted the Times, "has been linked -- through witness accounts, government inquiries and news reports -- to prisoner renditions from Sweden, Pakistan, Indonesia and Gambia."

And what happens to those prisoners once the U.S. government delivers them to the security services of "allies" like Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Uzbekistan?

President Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden yesterday and dismissed a recent report by Amnesty International critical of U.S. practices in the war on terror. "It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of -- and the allegations -- by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble [sic] -- that means not tell the truth," Bush said. "And so it was an absurd report."

Dissemble? Absurd? Take a look at the growing mountain of evidence buttressing the Amnesty report, and decide for yourself where those words best apply.

Mark Follman

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

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