CIA's 'Ghost Air ' Cover Exposed

Talk about the unfriendly skies. The CIA's secret airline, which I (and undoubtedly others) refer to as 'Ghost Air' because it transports hidden detainees around the world until reaching its preferred country of interrogation, has been exposed. It's not just a Gulf Stream and a 737. We're talking a whole airline operation with at least 26 planes.

An analysis of thousands of flight records, aircraft registrations and corporate documents, as well as interviews with former C.I.A. 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 CIA's airline is based in North Carolina, using the name "Aero Contractors and holds itself out as a charter airline service.

Nothing gives away the fact that Aero's pilots are the discreet bus drivers of the battle against terrorism, routinely sent on secret missions to Baghdad, Cairo, Tashkent and Kabul.

....When the Central Intelligence Agency wants to grab a suspected member of Al Qaeda overseas and deliver him to interrogators in another country, an Aero Contractors plane often does the job. If agency experts need to fly overseas in a hurry after the capture of a prized prisoner, a plane will depart Johnston County and stop at Dulles Airport outside Washington to pick up the C.I.A. team on the way.

Here's more:

While posing as a private charter outfit - "aircraft rental with pilot" is the listing in Dun and Bradstreet - Aero Contractors is in fact a major domestic hub of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret air service. The company was founded in 1979 by a legendary C.I.A. officer and chief pilot for Air America, the agency's Vietnam-era air company, and it appears to be controlled by the agency, according to former employees.

Behind a surprisingly thin cover of rural hideaways, front companies and shell corporations that share officers who appear to exist only on paper, the C.I.A. has rapidly expanded its air operations since 2001 as it has pursued and questioned terrorism suspects around the world.

....Some of the C.I.A. 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.

Other countries have initiated investigations into Ghost Air. Remember, Khaled el-Masri who was ordered released after five months by Secretary of State Condi Rice after it was determined his was a case of mistaken identity? (background here.) The Times reports:

The authorities in Italy and Sweden [more here]have opened investigations into the C.I.A.'s alleged role in the seizure of suspects in those countries who were then flown to Egypt for interrogation. According to Dr. Georg Nolte, a law professor at the University of Munich, under international law, nations are obligated to investigate any substantiated human rights violations committed on their territory or using their airspace.

Dr. Nolte examined the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who American officials have confirmed was pulled from a bus on the Serbia-Macedonia border on Dec. 31, 2003, and held for three weeks. Then he was drugged and beaten, by his account, before being flown to Afghanistan.

The episode illustrates the circumstantial nature of the evidence on C.I.A. flights, which often coincide with the arrest and transporting of Al Qaeda suspects. No public record states how Mr. Masri was taken to Afghanistan. But flight data shows a Boeing Business Jet operated by Aero Contractors and owned by Premier Executive Transport Services, one of the C.I.A.-linked shell companies, flew from Skopje, Macedonia, to Baghdad and on to Kabul on Jan. 24, 2004, the day after Mr. Masri's passport was marked with a Macedonian exit stamp.

Mr. Masri was later released by order of Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser at the time, after his arrest was shown to be a case of mistaken identity.

The Times interviewed representatives of the companies:

Representatives of Aero Contractors, Tepper Aviation and Pegasus Technologies, which operate the agency planes, said they could not discuss their clients' identities. "We've been doing business with the government for a long time, and one of the reasons is, we don't talk about it," said Robert W. Blowers, Aero's assistant manager.

This is a long, fascinating article. You won't be sorry for taking the time to read the whole thing.

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    Re: CIA's 'Ghost Air ' Cover Exposed (none / 0) (#1)
    by Dadler on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:59:29 PM EST
    CIA - Certifiably Incompetent Agency. Our moral credibility seems to be in the hands of people utterly bereft of original thought and imagination. And one wonders how many of these detainees have simply disappeared, like those we helped vanish in Argentina.

    Re: CIA's 'Ghost Air ' Cover Exposed (none / 0) (#2)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:59:29 PM EST
    Who takes the blame: "overzealous low-level staffer" or Bill Clinton? Because unlike the Plame outing, Aerogate will surely be seen as a threat to Freedom by the right-wingers. (Also, anyone want to give an over-under as to how long it takes Hindrocket to announce he has a new favorite airline?)

    Re: CIA's 'Ghost Air ' Cover Exposed (none / 0) (#3)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:59:29 PM EST
    Dadler... we have NO moral credibility. That was spent along with our social security surplus, our freedom, our self respect as workers and our corporate governance by BushCo and friends.

    Re: CIA's 'Ghost Air ' Cover Exposed (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:59:31 PM EST
    I am probably reading too much into the headline of the NYT's story, but it seems that the Times is finally acknowledging the obvious: The US is waging a war of terror.

    So, where are the bodies? (none / 0) (#5)
    by lambert on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:19:23 AM EST
    Jeralyn, thanks for this post, as great now as it was then. 26 airplanes? That's a small airline, so what happened to the passengers? That's a horrible question to even think about asking, but logic leads me to ask it, and I think it needs to be asked, and answered (possibly by a Truth and Reconciliation commisssion).

    Let's do some arithmetic on how many prisoners Bush is holding in his gulags.

    1. We know that there are thousands of prisoners (estimates range from 7,000 to 35,000).

    2. Gitmo holds only 500.  

    So, where are the missing thousands? The only alternatives I can think of:

    1. They've been released

    2. They're still in jail

    3. They've been disappeared.

    Barring divine intervention, the bodies of the missing thousands occupy time and space in this world. Where are they?

    If they've been released, then it's remarkable how few stories from ex-prisoners have appeared the press, especially the Middle Eastern press. Eh?