Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
In plane view: Maya Harris, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California, announces the organization's lawsuit against Jeppesen.
Why It Still Matters
Investigative journalists used flight records to link California aviation company to torture and the CIA
By Diane Solomon
The American Civil Liberties Union's May 30 lawsuit against aviation service company Jeppesen has blown the torture-flight charges against the company, which has offices in the Bay Area, into the national news. But behind the headlines is the story of how European investigative journalists, with the help of government officials in several countries, were able to link Jeppesen to the CIA's extraordinary rendition program using codes, logs and flight plans.
Claudio Gatti, an investigative journalist with Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper, broke the Jeppesen story for the International Herald Tribune. In a phone interview, he explains how his investigation connects the Boeing subsidiary to the rendition of at least five people, including the ACLU's three plaintiffs, and to the CIA's best-known victim, German citizen Khaled El-Masri. El-Masri says he was seized while on vacation in Macedonia and flown to a secret prison in Afghanistan, where he was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured for five months before being released without charges. Gatti says El-Masri was rendered in the same Jeppesen-serviced plane as ACLU plaintiff Benyam Mohamed.
According to the ACLU's lawsuit, Jeppesen provided flight and logistical support to more than 70 CIA rendition flights over a four-year period. The flights transported suspects to secret detention and interrogation facilities in countries where the U.S. Department of State has said the use of torture is "routine" and to U.S.-run detention facilities overseas where the feds say U.S. law doesn't apply.
Gatti says he began investigating when he became interested in the extraordinary rendition of one of the plaintiffs, Abou El Kassim Britel, an Italian citizen. Because he has written a book about an airplane incident, Gatti has a network of contacts in the civil aviation community. One told him that the CIA has shell companies that own planes but can't fly them without real companies who have an infrastructure to make and carry out flight arrangements.
The contact said these companies were profiting from the extraordinary renditions and that flight logs would link them to the CIA.
"Flight logs are kept by aviation authorities for years," he says, "so if you go back and find a flight where you think a prisoner was transported, there's documentary evidence."
Gatti obtained flight records from European Parliamentary and Council of Europe commissions, and from civil aviation authorities in Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. He says his investigation parallels the ACLU's and proves that Jeppesen played a major role in the program.
"The CIA couldn't have had this program without Jeppesen's support providing flight permits, weather reports and assistance with fees and refueling," he says. "The CIA has planes but no support network."
Gatti discovered four U.S. companies that arranged the CIA's extraordinary renditions' flights during this period: Jeppesen; Air Routing International; Baseops Flight Planning; and Universal Weather and Aviation Inc. Each CIA plane was assigned to one of the four companies, which in turn consistently serviced its flights.
"A Gulfstream V, N379P, became known as the 'Guantánamo Bay Express' because it was used so much for these flights," Gatti says. He says he knows this because each flight log contains codes that specify the flight's airport departure, arrival and originator.
"The originator files the flight plan and supports the flight," says Gatti. "That's how I found out Jeppesen was involved. Their originator code is KSFOXLDI."
"K" is the international letter for the United States, "SF" is San Francisco and "OXLDI" is unique to Jeppesen.
The ACLU's lawsuit names a Gulfstream V, formerly registered as N379P, as one of 15 aircraft serviced by Jeppesen for the CIA. Gatti said that right after 9-11, one of the first renditions was almost exposed because of this plane. On Oct. 23, 2001, at Pakistan's Karachi International Airport, masked men handed an individual over to a group of Americans who had just landed in a Gulfstream V executive jet. The story surfaced three days later in a News International English-language newspaper, which gave the Gulfstream's tail number: N379P.
"That incident showed that any glitch in the flight-support services could have endangered the entire rendition program," says Gatti, "and that professionals such as those from Jeppesen were essential to its success."
The ACLU is using Jeppesen in order to put the CIA's extraordinary rendition program on trial. Last March, the U.S. Appeals Court dismissed El-Masri's lawsuit against former CIA director George J. Tenet and 10 unnamed CIA officials after the government invoked "state secrets" privilege. Last month, the ACLU petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review this case.
Meanwhile about 50 congressmembers, including Lynn Woolsey, are co-sponsoring HR 1352, the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act. If made law, HR 1352 would shut down the CIA's extraordinary renditions, barring the government and its contractors from transferring suspects to countries where torture is legal.
"Congress cannot delay any longer in addressing the administration's use--free from any real judicial or congressional oversight--of extraordinary rendition," says Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who drafted this legislation.
"We just don't discuss who our clients are or what services we provide for them," says Jeppesen spokesman Tim Neale. "Flight plans require us to know where they want to go and when they want to go, but don't require us to know the purpose of the flight."
However, that argument may not hold for much longer. "Torture is not a [California] value," says Sanjeev Bery of the ACLU, "and our community leaders should tell Jeppesen that they shouldn't be profiting from the practice of torture. It has no place here."
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