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The Pentagon's ghost planes and enforced disappearances

by Christopher Bollyn
17 Jan 2005

Articles in the mainstream media about a mystery jet used to transport individuals to third countries for torture and interrogation have ignored the important legal questions about such "extraordinary renditions."

There has been a flurry of articles recently in the U.S. press about an executive jet used by "American intelligence agencies" to transport abducted "terrorist suspects" for interrogation to third countries that use torture. The mainstream media, however, largely omits the essential details about "extraordinary rendition," a practice begun during the Clinton administration, and ignores the legal questions it raises.

The Sunday Times (UK) wrote about the mystery jet, a Gulfstream 5, on Nov. 14, saying it had obtained the logs of some 300 flights showing "the movements of the Gulfstream 5 leased by agents from the U.S. defense department and the CIA."

According to the Times, the logs indicate that the U.S. has used the plane to transport abducted "prisoners" to "countries with poor human rights records" where they have been turned over to the authorities for "torture by proxy."

During the past two years, the plane, which "always" departs from Washington, D.C., "has flown to 49 destinations outside America, including the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba and other U.S. military bases." Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan are among the foreign destinations of the "torture jet," which has the registration number N379P.

The Gulfstream made at least seven trips to Uzbekistan, a dictatorship allied with the U.S. in the "war on terror," where the Times wrote, the "secret police are notorious for their interrogation methods, including the alleged boiling of prisoners."

"I have come across many cases of rape in front of family members who they wish to extract information from," Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said recently on Swedish television. "I have post mortem photos of a corpse," Murray said. "These show that the person was boiled to death."

Murray said U.S. agents have sent "terrorist suspects" from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan to be interrogated by torture. Murray was recently removed from his post after he sent a memo to Foreign Minister Jack Straw, in which he reported that the CIA station chief in Tashkent had "readily acknowledged torture was deployed in obtaining intelligence."

The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune all recently reported on the torture jet, but have focused on the phony companies with whom the plane is registered rather than on the serious crimes it has been used to commit.


Much of the information about the "torture flights" has come from a Swedish journalist, Fredrik Laurin, who has produced four television programs about the kidnapping and "enforced disappearance" of two Egyptians from Sweden in December 2001.

The four-part "Kalla Fakta" (Cold Facts) program about the "enforced disappearance" of the two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza, 39, and Muhammad Al Zery, 33, began on Swedish television on May 17, 2004 and can be viewed on-line. The most important details of the abductions, however, are not found in the U.S. press.

In the afternoon of December 18, 2001, Ahmed Agiza was picked up by police on his way home from Swedish lessons in the western town of Karlstad. His wife and 5 children awaited him at home.

Meanwhile in Stockholm, Swedish security police, S─PO, arrested Al Zery at his job. The two Egyptians were then driven to Bromma airport in Stockholm.

Paul Forell, a policeman with 25 years experience, was at the police station at Bromma airport that night. Forell told Laurin what he observed:

"First came the security police (S─PO) …after five or ten minutes two Americans arrived, in civilian suits, and we stood there for a while talking," he said. The Americans, he said, were about 35 years old, gave their first names and said they were from the U.S. Embassy.

"Well, then came this group with the arrested men into the station, and everything went very fast," Forell said. "The arrested men, wearing their own clothes, were shackled hand and foot."

Asked who brought the men into the station, Forell said: "The Americans. The Swedish policemen stayed behind in the outer, public premises," he said. "There were three to four men to each of the arrested." The Americans were "dressed in jeans and shirts, and wearing black masks."

Forell, a bystander, was the only uniformed policeman. "There was hardly room for me in my own station," he said.

Laurin described what happened next: The arrested men were placed in the station's changing-room and while shackled hand and foot, their clothes were cut off in pieces. When the men were naked, "suppositories of an unknown kind were inserted into their rectums."

Dressed in diapers and dark overalls, blindfolded and hooded, the men were then brought back to the cars, Laurin reported.

The Gulfstream 5 with the registration N379P, "flying for the U.S. Dept. of Defense," waited on the tarmac several hundred yards away.

"One of the prisoners was placed lying on the floor with his hands and feet cuffed together behind his back. The other was strapped fast in the cabin, with his hands over his head."

The two arrested Egyptians, about eight Americans, and two Swedish police from S─PO took off at 9:49 p.m., Kalla Fakta reported. "When the plane landed in Cairo at 3 a.m., the men were turned over to Egyptian intelligence officers."


"Disguised agents from an elite American military unit, answering directly to the White House, are allowed to take command on Swedish soil, contrary to Swedish law. In a secret and brutal operation, two Egyptians who have asylum in Sweden are kidnapped and brought to Egypt to be tortured," Kalla Fakta reported. "They are suspected of terrorism, but no evidence is presented."

After two and a half years of torture in an Egyptian prison, Al Zery was declared innocent and released. Agiza, in an Egyptian military trial, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

American journalist Seymour Hersh, in an interview with Kalla Fakta, seems to identify with the perpetrators of the illegal abductions with his constant use of the pronoun "we".

"We talk about the most sensitive operation in the world," Hersh said. "With ability to go into a country with false documents, get into any country in the world, get to the house of somebody that we're looking for, knock on their door, drag them out, put them on an airplane and fly them away to various facilities…where we can do interrogation, or our allies can do interrogation for us."

"What happened in Sweden was going to happen and did happen around the world. People were taken, without due recourse for any legal worries, period. And it can happen because we wanted it to happen," Hersh said.

The Gulfstream 5 has completed at least 72 such operations in more than 30 countries, Kalla Fakta reported. And it always follows the same pattern. "After take off from its home base in Smithfield, North Carolina, it makes a short stop at Dulles International Airport, close to CIA headquarters and the Pentagon.

"It flies exclusively to countries that are allied with the U.S. in the fight against terror: Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan," Kalla Fakta reported, "countries where prisoners are kept and interrogated, far beyond the reach of American and international courts."


U.S. enforced disappearances from Sweden are nothing new, according to Swedish journalist Sven AnÚr. More than 10 years ago, on Sept. 28, 1994, nine Estonian survivors from the Estonia ferry disaster "disappeared" in a similar manner.

The day after the sinking, 9 crew members were removed from the lists of 146 reported survivors as a Gulfstream 4 (Reg. N971L), and a Boeing 727-200 (Reg. VR-CLM), left Stockholm's Arlanda airport carrying 4 and 5 unregistered passengers each. AnÚr has the documents from the airport's archive that show that the fees for the two airplanes were paid by the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm.

Among those who disappeared after having been on the survivor lists from Estonia were one of captains, Avo Piht, and the ship's chief engineer, Lembit Leiger. Piht and Leiger would be key witnesses as to the ship's seaworthiness, its cargo, and causes of its mysterious sinking, which took 852 lives.


"Enforced disappearance" and torture are "crimes against humanity," according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which the Bush administration opposes.

Enforced disappearance, according to the 1998 statute, "means the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time."

While inquiries at the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice about the legality of "extraordinary renditions" went unanswered, a March 19, 2004 memo from Jack L. Goldsmith, Assistant Attorney General, clearly reveals the Bush administration's intent to defy international law.

Goldsmith's memo, written to Alberto R. Gonzales, then counsel to the President, and the top lawyers at the Dept. of State, Defense, CIA, and National Security Council, states that the U.S. does not have to abide by Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention.

Article 49, however, is very clear: "Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportation of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive."

Like a Talmudist negating Mosaic Law, after 13 pages of tortuous arguments, Goldsmith writes: "We conclude that it is permissible to relocate 'protected persons' who have not been accused of an offense from Iraq to another country, for a brief but not indefinite period, for purposes of interrogation."

Legal experts say that Goldsmith's "torture memo" led to the widespread abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Goldsmith, who is considered a "war criminal" by some international lawyers for his authorization of war crimes in the "torture memo," recently accepted a teaching position at Harvard Law School (HLS).

Francis A. Boyle, magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and professor of international law at the University of Illinois, is working to have Goldsmith and the deans who hired him at HLS replaced. Boyle said that allowing a "war criminal" like Goldsmith to teach law is "an abandonment and betrayal of 80 years of progressive legal studies at Harvard."


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