Tracking the Ghost Pilots

Tracking the Ghost Pilots

Court challenges gain steam as news organizations identify pilots of planes transporting terror suspects to secret prisons.


Chris Kromm and Jill Doub are contributors to the upcoming report “North Carolina at War” (Institute for Southern Studies/Southern Exposure, March 2007). Elena Everett contributed research for this story, an earlier version of which appeared on the institute’s blog, Facing South.

The three pilots all live in quiet suburbs, twenty minutes southeast of Raleigh, North Carolina. When they fly, they use aliases: Capt. James Fairing, Eric Matthew Fain and Kirk James Bird. And their stately homes are all within a half-hour drive of the rural Johnston County Airport and flight hanger of Aero Contractors–the CIA-linked company at the center of new investigations into US “renditions” of terror suspects to countries with lax torture laws.

In a fast-moving story being followed by multiple news organizations (including ours, Southern Exposure), the identities of the three Aero contract pilots linked to the CIA’s rendition flights have been discovered. Closing in on the actual pilots involved could be a major breakthrough, fueling legal and governmental challenges in Germany, Italy and in US courts against what human rights groups call “torture taxis.”

On February 18 the Los Angeles Times reported it had visited the homes of the three North Carolina pilots who, despite using different names, clearly matched pictures on file with the FAA of pilots contracting with Aero. As the Times reported, flight and phone records also show they are the same pilots who made calls back to North Carolina while on layovers during rendition flights, from resort islands like Ibiza and Majorca.

In January, Southern Exposure also visited the homes of the pilots. The suspects quickly closed their doors after clearly rehearsed statements saying they didn’t know what we were talking about, and to get off their property. But we can corroborate the Times story that the men match photographs of the Aero pilots linked to the rendition flights, and that they live close to the secretive, state-of-the-art rural airport near Smithfield, North Carolina.

The hunt for the CIA-linked pilots intensified in January when the German government announced it was seeking three “ghost pilots,” and ten other associates, in the December 2003 nabbing of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent. Masri claims that he was abducted in Macedonia, where he was detained for three weeks, and then flown to Afghanistan for a brutal interrogation. Flight data shows an Aero Contractors jet leaving Macedonia and headed to Kabul on January 24, 2004–the day after Masri’s passport was marked with a Macedonian exit stamp. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later reportedly ordered Masri’s release after his arrest was shown to be a case of mistaken identity.

German federal prosecutors–along with pioneering journalists at Panorama, an investigative program on German TV–quickly began gathering evidence and helped the American Civil Liberties Union file a US lawsuit in 2005 naming twenty-four defendants, including CIA Director George Tenet, Aero Contractors and ten unnamed employees of Aero. The case was dismissed in May 2006 (“state secrets”), but the ACLU filed an appeal last July, which is still being considered by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The German government’s high-profile announcement in January that it would also be seeking those connected to “black renditions” strained US-German relations and, as the Times reports, has “caused a political scandal…over whether government officials sanctioned the CIA operation.”

More countries are taking action: On February 16, an Italian judge issued arrest warrants for twenty-six suspected CIA operatives who are accused of abducting a Muslim cleric outside his mosque in Milan in February 2003 and delivering him to Egypt, where his lawyer says he was tortured. The trial is set for June 8 in Milan. One of the pilots involved is linked to the German case.

Even back home in North Carolina, Aero and the pilots are under growing scrutiny. At the urging of Stop Torture Now and other groups, twenty-two state legislators sent a letter in January requesting the North Carolina Attorney General to get the State Bureau of Investigations involved. The SBI, the lawmakers wrote, “should investigate credible allegations that Aero Contractors conspired to commit federal crimes and then provided material support to the commission of those crimes on property owned by the State of North Carolina.”

The North Carolina SBI has so far declined to investigate, but the trail to the torture pilots is only getting hotter.

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