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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Toronto Star December 4, 2005

Ghost flights over Canada

By Tim Harper

When the 40-seat turboprop landed in St. John's one recent Friday evening, there was no reason to believe ghosts were involved in the procedure.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recorded everything anyone would need to know, it seemed, about the fixed-wing, multi-engine plane, registration number N196D, built in 2003 and registered as a corporate jet.

The corporation is identified as Devon Holding and Leasing Inc., headquartered at a downtown address in Lexington, N.C.

And that is when the ghosts appear.

There is no Devon Holding and Leasing Inc. at 129 W. Center St. in Lexington, N.C. There is no phone listing. The city offices have never heard of it; neither has the Chamber of Commerce.

The law offices of James A. Gleason are at 129 W. Center St., but five days of inquiries there failed to yield an answer to this simple question: Does anyone in this office know of a company called Devon Holding and Leasing?

It is almost certainly a CIA shell company, existing on paper only, and the turboprop was likely carrying a "ghost" prisoner to a country where torture is used during interrogations.

Such covert flights, known as "extraordinary renditions," became infamous in Canada in the case of Maher Arar, the Ottawa man who was tortured in Syria after being whisked away from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport as a suspected terrorist.

The United States denies it tortures suspects.

There have been five occasions in which suspected CIA-linked aircraft flew over Canada, or landed in Newfoundland or Nunavut, over the past six months.

And the flights are raising the same kind of questions that are being asked in capitals around the world.

Did official Ottawa know of the flights and who might have been on the aircraft?

Did the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) co-operate in allowing the U.S. overflights and landings?

If so, they were breaking international law.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada spokesperson Zuwena Robidas has commented on two of the Newfoundland landings, saying they "were in accordance with normal operating procedure for private flights. The government of Canada has no information to substantiate allegations about links between those flights and the CIA."

Overflights and landings have been reported in Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, Cyprus, Macedonia, Malta and Greece among other countries.

Iceland alone is said to be able to document 67 such landings on its soil.

In addition to the rendition flights, the U.S. State Department now has to deal with European countries determined to get answers about secret CIA prisons, so-called "black sites" on their continent.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Germany tomorrow for the first stop in a four-country tour, she'll have to deal with questions about potential human rights abuses carried out on European soil.

"The United States realizes that these are topics that are generating interest among European publics as well as parliaments, and that these questions need to be responded to," said State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack.

"We're going to do our best to answer these questions in as complete and forthright a manner as we possible can."

A spokesperson for new German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would wait patiently for the answers sought by the European Union and eight of its member states.

Back in the United States, Margaret Satterthwaite, a New York University law professor, says things are coming to a head in the covert war on terror.

"Governments are now on notice," she says. "Specific planes with specific tail numbers have been identified and these governments cannot now put their heads back in the sand.

"Western European countries and Canada have strong commitments to human rights.

"If these governments stopped co-operating — even passive co-operation by allowing refuelling and overflights — the CIA would have no ability to do this."

In a new study titled "Torture by Proxy: International Law Applicable to Extraordinary Renditions," the New York-based Center for Human Rights concludes that any nation which knowingly facilitates torture is complicit under international law.

Any country that has allowed the CIA ghost planes on its soil or in its airspace could be guilty, the brief says, "if it could be shown that a plane carrying rendered persons would not be able to make it to a destination where the person will be subject to torture unless it was able to refuel in a particular state."

The Bush administration seems taken aback by Europe's reaction to the so-called "black sites," first reported on last month by The Washington Post

The continent's leading human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, is investigating the Post report and probing flights by 31 aircraft it suspects of being used by the CIA to secretly transfer prisoners across European borders.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says it knows the United States is holding at least 26 "ghost detainees" at undisclosed sites around the world.

Many of the suspected rendition flights have been flagged by recreational "tail-spotters" who have turned their hobby of identifying aircraft tail numbers into a valuable Internet data source.

"It's careless tradecraft," says John Pike, an expert on U.S. intelligence matters at GlobalSecurity.org.

"They (the CIA) have allowed the tail-spotters into the game and they have not come to grips with the advent of the Internet, and not come to grips with the massive parallel processing which is underway with all those tail-spotters."

The planes are supposed to be registered with legitimate companies, so they just blend in and can't be traced to the CIA, Pike says.

"These are not real companies. They should be using good-looking companies which arouse no suspicion at all."

Pike notes that the CIA has been given a big boost to its budget and has spent most of it on the "human intelligence" the 9/11 commission concluded it so sorely lacked.

"By that, do people think we're going to hire a bunch of James Bonds and send them to Monte Carlo to the baccarat table?

"No, we're going to kidnap people and subject them to physical duress and psychological duress and they're going to tell us where the bad guys are and we're going to go get them."

What the CIA is doing is nothing new.

During the Vietnam era, it operated Air America, a covert air force created to fight the Cold War and often involved in combat service. Some 87 Air America agents were killed between 1946 and 1976.

The New York Times reported last spring that the CIA owns at least 26 planes, 10 of them purchased since 2001.

The newspaper said the CIA has tried to conceal its ownership by setting up seven shell corporations that have no employees but are registered owners of the aircraft.

Many of the flights, the Times said, fly out of a tiny airstrip in Johnston County, N.C., sometimes stopping at Washington's Dulles Airport to pick up CIA agents.

The Times tracked 11 flights to landings at Camp Peavy, a Virginia base used by the CIA. Other flights went to Guantanamo Bay.

Spanish investigators have identified at least two planes they believe were rendition flights that landed on the island of Mallorca as belonging to Stevens Express Leasing Inc.

Like the silent law partners in Lexington, Stevens was traced to the law office of Douglas R. Beaty in a suburb of Memphis, Tenn.

"All I do is real estate," Beaty told the Associated Press.

Spanish authorities now say they believe the U.S. aircraft alleged to be transporting suspected terrorists this year and in 2004 broke no law.

It was a case in Italy that first blew the CIA cover.

Italian judges issued arrest warrants for 22 purported CIA operatives who allegedly snatched a Muslim cleric from Milan in 2003 and flew him to Cairo aboard a Gulfstream IV registered to Richmor Aviation.

That jet belongs to Phillip H. Morse, a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, who told The Boston Globe that the team's logo was covered when the CIA leased the plane.

A German prosecutor has also launched a probe to see if the CIA landed on German soil to refuel the plane in that case.

Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr was taken off the streets of Milan on Feb. 17, 2003, then flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany — considered U.S. territory — and from there to Egypt where he was reportedly tortured.

A similar case involving Saad Iqbal Madni, 24, is also well documented. He was plucked from a Jakarta rooming house by Indonesian officials on Jan. 9, 2002, then loaded on a Gulfstream executive jet and flown to Cairo, with stops in Scotland to refuel, and Washington.

After being held two years, he arrived at Guantanamo Bay, claiming he had been tortured by having electrodes placed on his knees.

The most likely outcome of Rice's meetings with European officials? A denial will come from all concerned, Pike says, because the European Union is not going to take action based on newspaper articles. He notes that the case is built on "unsubstantiated" prisons whose existence can't be proven.

"Why do you think they call it covert?"

The true nature of the St. John's flights might also never come to light.

Planes landing in Newfoundland must file a flight plan, Pike agrees. "But they are certainly not required to inform the government that they are hauling evil-doers to unacknowledged detention centres."

Copyright 2005, Toronto Star Newspapers Limited