By Neil Harris
AMERICA’S response to 9/11, the “War against Terror”, turned out to be wave of wars, assassinations, kidnappings, torture and illegal imprisonment. The kidnappings and torture became known as “Extraordinary Rendition” and were major undercover operations, involving chartered, civilian jets.
Opposition to this imperialist rampage produced some informal alliances between progressive campaigners and the quiet, non-political world of plane spotters, who had inadvertently recorded the comings and goings of the secret flights. That story isn’t over yet, with the hard work now turning into prosecutions in Germany, Switzerland, Poland and Italy as well as a civil action against Jack Straw, here in Britain.
The plane spotters taught people on the left how to make patient use of flight records and aircraft registration numbers, while the lefties provided a bit of tough, political experience. It became possible to chase the vapour trails left by these “ghost planes” and the secretive companies that operated them. It also left some of us with a lasting interest in the complex and shadowy world of CIA front companies and their “proprietary” airlines; apparently independent air companies which rely on the CIA for a part of their income.
This New Worker investigation began after reviewing a Sunday Times story from 2007, which exposed unusual United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) missions in the Balkans. The reporters had noticed that for two years USAFE flights were occasionally using the civilian call sign “Juliet Golf Oscar” (JGO) for military flights. Call signs are rarely transferred and never shared. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), JGO was still the call sign of “JETSGO”, a Canadian budget airline which had gone bankrupt in 2005, leaving many thousands of Easter holidaymakers stranded.
Given that these flights were between Tuzla in Bosnia, Pristina in Kosovo, the joint US-Italian military airbase in Aviano, Northern Italy, and Ramstein in Germany (headquarters of USAFE) it was strange that they seemed be using civilian call signs. The explanation the Pentagon gave the paper was even more unlikely: that the code was used because the flights were part of “Operation Joint Guard (JGO)”, the Nato-led multinational intervention force SFOR, deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Bosnian war.
SFOR operated under the code names Operation Joint Guard (21st December 1996 – 19th June 1998) and Operation Joint Forge (20th June 1998 – 2nd December 2004) under UN Security Council resolution 1088.So by 2005, the military call sign “JGO”, had long gone, but the US still had planes flying over the Balkans using it. Something wasn’t right. The planes were pretty mysterious too, the paper listed them as; “Lear jet 35 executive jets, C-130 transport planes and the MC-130P Combat Shadows, which are specially adapted for clandestine missions in politically sensitive or hostile territory”. We’ll never know what they were up to but the journalists found that “JGO” planes often seemed to meet other unusual flights which the [Sunday Times] speculated were involved in clandestine gun-running or rendition.
There the story ends, except that the New Worker noticed that until its bankruptcy, JETSGO also had a lucrative business flying charter passengers from Canada to Cuba. It may well have been a coincidence but it seemed a strange call sign for the US military to choose and so we decided to investigate charter flights to Cuba a little further.
American tourism to Cuba is illegal, although some travel by Cuban-Americans to visit relatives, or by groups for religious or cultural reasons is allowed but strictly controlled and licensed. Also controlled are the travel arrangements – scheduled flights are banned and all flights are via unscheduled charters. Travel providers must hold licences from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of the Treasury, as must individual passengers. Breaches result in large financial penalties because America regards Cuba as a “terrorist” threat, a part of the “Axis of Evil” and subjects it to strict trade sanctions and blockade.
In July 2010, an official US delegation from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) travelled around Cuba, investigating travel arrangements for Americans but, of course, secretly investigating the airports they visited. As the US Interests office in Havana put it in their cable reporting to the US State Department: “Also listed is pertinent information gathered about each airport and which may be of interest to Cuba transition planners.” Those planners are the Americans planning for the overthrow of socialism on the island.
The cable also reported on the movements of Cuban-Americans and the presents they took for their relatives. Their baggage is transported at exorbitant rates and it generates a highly profitable income for the charter companies, in addition to the amounts they charge the travel companies for the flights. Some carriers even send the baggage in a separate plane to the passengers, to maximise revenue. The losers were the Cuban-Americans who were being ripped off and the Cuban Government, which the US Special Interests section noted with pleasure, gained little except for visa fees and airport taxes.
One air charter company benefiting from exploiting Cuban-Americans in this way is Vision Airlines, which provides charter aircraft to a number of Cuban Tour operators, flying out of New York and Miami. For example, David Meers, their chief operating officer interviewed in [CubaNews] in March 2011, explained that Vision Airlines were flying an average 14 flights a week to Cuba for C&T Charters Inc. of Coral Gables, Florida, from Miami International airport alone.
It’s been a “rags to riches” story at Vision, call sign RBY (RUBY). It began flying sightseers over the Grand Canyon in Dorniers, before moving up to flying gamblers from one casino resort to another. It has dabbled unsuccessfully in scheduled flights between American cities but has always relied on its charter business to survive and in tough times government business is always the most reliable.
Vision has a long history of government contracts; for many years they flew inmates from Clark County Detention Centre to the forensic psychiatric facility at Lakes Crossing. They have a number of employees with experience in law enforcement, which probably helped winning both that and the contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – deportation flights which are a much more comfortable version of the Department of Prisons “Con-air” and which take Vision Airlines planes to all kinds of exotic destinations.
Vision Airlines is unusual in operating some of its aircraft in plain white paint, with few identifying features. Even the registration numbers are often faded and hard to read. It’s unusual because most airlines and charter companies like to use their aircraft fuselage and tails as a free advertisement for the company. It’s been helpful to us though, as the sight of an unmarked aircraft guarantees to spark an interest amongst the plane spotting community.
The best example of “ghost planes” are what plane spotters refer to as the “Janet planes”. Nicknamed after the radio call sign used by the white planes flying out of McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, the “Janets” are a common sight ferrying civilian contractors and service personnel to remote military research stations in California and Nevada like Tonopah Test Range, the Naval Air weapons station at China lake, Edwards Air force base and, of course, the secret research base Groom Lake, known as “Area 51” to UFO fans.
For many years these flights were operated by a division of E, G and G, a local defence corporation that grew out of the Manhattan project to develop the nuclear bomb. Nowadays, the Department of Defence, which is the registered owner of the planes, has taken back direct control of the Janet flights after E, G and G was bought out.
By coincidence Vision Airlines flies some of its own plain white planes from nearby North Las Vegas airport, where its headquarters are based. For many years the company operated out of 2634 Airport Drive, Suite 106, North Las Vegas, before moving to 2705 Airport Drive, Suite 500. It may also be just a coincidence that so many of its job advertisements specify that its staff require security clearance.
However, this quote from one of its pilots on the “Airline Pilots’ Central Forum” from August 2009 indicates it may be no accident: “Vision has done government contract work for years with 737s. Last year (or so) they switched to 767s and started the long process of moving the 73s to the overt side of the operation. We (as in the non-secret pilots) know little to nothing about the 767 operation. We share dispatchers, but that’s about it. If you want a job on that side of the operation, your guess is as good as mine as to how to go about it.”
It is puzzling how a corporation with so many contracts that require security clearance and with pilots who are often ex air-force also flies daily to Cuba. ICE for example, is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which has responsibility for “protecting” America from countries like Cuba. A visit to Cuba by an American would normally be considered a security risk.
It’s certainly not gone unnoticed in Miami, as “Cranky Concierge”, an air transport blog commented when two of Vision’s underused planes were used to start a new service: “Vision has two airplanes based in Miami. One, which flies Cuba charters, has a hole in the schedule on Friday that allows this flight to go. The other is used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and it doesn’t fly on Sunday. So these airplanes are in Miami already. Now you too can fly like a deported illegal immigrant . . .”
As they wouldn’t want to get ICE and Cuba charter planes mixed up, it avoids misunderstandings if there is no company name on the tail. The downside of this is that the “ghost planes” tend to be of interest whenever they arrive at a new airport; its big white Boeing 737’s certainly made an impression when they turned up at Bratislava in 2008; the spotters assumed they were CIA rendition planes. The Slovak Spectator broke the story just as the planes moved base to Romania;
“The 737 that was parked at Bratislava airport is operated by Vision Airlines, a Nevada corporation with bases in Las Vegas and Baghdad, whose main contractor is the US government. In 2006, according to European flight records, the plane was used on flights from Baghdad to Budapest and then Shannon Airport in Ireland and Washington. Other Vision Air aircraft flew between Kabul and Frankfurt.
The aeroplane was spotted by enthusiasts at Bratislava airport on several occasions last year. In November 2007 it was also spotted crossing Norwegian and Danish airspace, and was described by the Aftenbladet newspaper of Stavanger, Norway, as a CIA flight.
"My sources at air traffic control told me that the planes were flying mostly through Budapest and Bratislava, and mostly to and from Baghdad," said Jan-Petter Helgesen, the journalist who covered the story. "The owner of the plane [Wilmington] is a private company that works very closely with the CIA."
The Slovak Spectator was only partly right about Vision, although the aircraft leasing companies; Wilmington Trust of Delaware and the Wells Fargo Bank Northwest NA Trustees of Salt Lake City, do have a history of financing other operators of rendition planes.
But in August 2009, the New York Times, reported that Kyle D Foggo, at that time head of the CIA’s main European supply base in Frankfurt, oversaw the construction of three CIA detention centres in Romania; “each built to house about a half-dozen detainees”. They added that “one jail was a renovated building on a busy street in Bucharest”.
More of the truth was revealed in January 2009 when a group of former employees sued the airline in what became a class action. Because the contracts were classified, the documents were sealed and hidden from public view by the District Court of the State of Nevada after only four days. Luckily, the New Worker has been able to track some of them down.
They reveal that from 2005 Vision was a subcontractor to the main contractor (originally Capital Aviation and then McNeil Industries) flying planes that made up part of the US “air bridge” to Bagdad and Kabul.
Vision flew twice a week to each destination, transporting various diplomatic and “other” personnel as well as cargo. A former Vision pilot, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Home News of Las Vegas that the passengers typically included: “CIA and State Department personnel along with employees of the private security contractor, Blackwater.”
All flights started at Frankfurt, stopping at Bucharest, Romania to refuel or make transfers, then in 2007 using Bratislava, Slovakia before moving back to Bucharest in 2008. As the final destinations were dangerous war zones, the US Government had been paying substantial “Hazard Pay” to the companies, on top of their charter fees, to be passed straight through to the crew. These had built up to $21 million over the period of the contract but unfortunately, the crew received nothing. The employees alleged that Vision had discovered it could pocket the money itself, after it had dismissed everyone who knew about the payments.
Helpfully for us, Vision then in turn counter-sued five of its former employees, revealing in the sworn pleadings that its workers had had to sign a “classified information nondisclosure agreement with the United States Government”. Vision also confirmed that it had aviation services contracts with three companies: Capital Aviation Inc, Computer Sciences Corp and McNeil Technologies Inc. All three were contractors providing security and other services to the US government in war zones.
A number of organisations, from the European Parliament to the Scottish National Party have tried to pin down the rendition flights, a task made harder by the CIA which has learnt from the mistakes made in the “Air America” and “Iran-Contra” years. Back then, it was all too easy to follow the trail left by proprietary air companies back to Langley, Virginia or to the Pentagon. Nowadays, it’s more subtle; registration numbers are changed at short notice, corporations come and go. Plane ownership can pass between a series of mock corporations or find a home in genuine ones. Often these rely on CIA subsidies, usually through being given opportunities to earn “legitimate” income in return for favours.
Despite all this contracts have to be put out to public tender and the planes themselves have to be owned and registered and all this has left a trail we can follow. In the second part of this article we’ll take a look where those trails lead...
THE CASE that Vision Airlines itself is a CIA proprietary company was still open because two of its Boeing 737’s definitely raised suspicions: N732VA, originally N34315 and N731VA. Both were part of the “air bridges” and both had also flashed up as possible rendition flights.
The second plane started life as N368CE, another Boeing identified as a part of the extraordinary rendition programme by the “Contribution of the Rapporteur; Research on the planes use by the CIA”, prepared for the European Parliament. This published the full list of alleged rendition flights made by N368CE from 2002 to 2005 and in particular; Frankfurt to Baghdad and Kabul (both sites of notorious illegal detention centres) as well as another similar “air bridge” that operated between Frankfurt and Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan, which was serving the US Military presence there in support of the Afghan war.
The allegations were repeated in the British Parliament and in the Scottish National Party report on rendition flights passing through Scotland. In total N386CE had landed at British airports at least 18 times, according to a 2006 written answer from the Transport minister.
The New Worker view was still that the 737 would have made an unlikely rendition plane as, despite the report’s conclusions, the CIA always tended to use either Lear jets or Gulfstreams, both smaller and more discreet than the 737’s. Also there have never been any indications that the plane ever flew into Guantanamo Bay.
But many of its destinations were of real interest to us: Washington DC, Cyprus, Pakistan, Dubai, Ireland, Canada, Tunisia, Nigeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey and Jordan as well as the regular trips to Bagdad, Kabul and Ashkhabad. All had a role in the war against terror and the rendition/torture programme.
Shannon (Eire), Gander (Canada) and Larnaca (Cyprus) are refuelling stops as well as being useful airports to arrange transfers and handovers between planes where there are governments that are sympathetic to America. Eire and Cyprus have both been highlighted by the EU parliament or the Council of Europe as rendition “‘hubs”.
But Shannon is also the home of the now world famous “Shannonwatch”, where peace and environmental activists co-operating with local plane spotters, recorded those suspected rendition flights as they stopped off in Ireland.
Some round trips clearly carried the signature of the war on terror: on 13/6/04 N368CE flew Washington DC/Shannon/Cairo then 17/6/04 Amman (Jordan)/Shannon /Gander. It’s hard not to be suspicious of that itinerary or 14/6/03 when it flew Inverness/Gander then 18/6/03 Gander/Luton/Riyadh (Saudi Arabia/Larnaca/Shannon then 19/6/03 Shannon/Gander.
In 2002 N368CE made some other interesting trips of which we only have space to list a few:
31/3/02 Athens/Shannon/Dubai (Arab Emirates)/Athens.
25/3/02 Islamabad(Pakistan)/Larnaca/Shannon/Washington DC.
24/5/02 Washington/Shannon/Larnaca/Karachi (Pakistan)/Larnaca.
While the most likely explanation is still that these were charter contracts ferrying civilian contractors to and from areas of US military presence, destinations like Amman, Karachi, Cairo, Dubai, Morocco and Islamabad were all notorious for their involvement in the torture programme.
It was when we started to look at events in Venezuela in April 2002, where an American-backed coup d’état resulted in the imprisonment of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the installation of a pro-US, pro-business regime for two days, that N368CE became really interesting.
Ed Vuilliamy, wrote in the Observer 21/4/02 how “Top coup plotters, including Pedro Carmona, the man installed during the coup as the new president, began visits to the White House months before the coup and continued until weeks before the putsch. The plotters were received at the White House by the man President George W Bush tasked to be his key policy-maker for Latin America, Special Envoy Otto Reich.”
Meanwhile Christopher Marquis, the Washington correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 26th April 2002 how “funds were provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit agency created and financed by Congress…. the endowment quadrupled its budget for the country to more than $877,000. Of particular concern is $154,377 given by the endowment to the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, the international arm of the AFL-CIO, the US union umbrella body, to help the main Venezuelan trade union advance labour rights. The Venezuelan union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, led the work stoppages that galvanised the opposition to Mr Chavez. The union's leader, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman who briefly took over from Mr Chavez, in challenging the Government.”
All of this activity would have required trips to America, for discussions and meetings as well as training sessions for activists and those visits needed the kind of flexibility and secrecy that scheduled flights just can’t give. It is thanks to Stephen Grey, the journalist who wrote [Ghost Plane], and who pioneered the analysis of rendition flight records, that we know something about what happened. He traced the many suspicious charter flights to and from the US and Venezuela throughout 2002: “The first appearance of the planes was on 4th March 2002. On 5th March 2002, opposition leader Carlos Ortega signed a pact to remove controversial president Chavez. Another plane came in 13th March to take whoever back to JFK”. That plane was N386CE and as the coup took place on the 11th April, that’s quite a coincidence.
It was transferred to Vision Airlines and became N731VA, N368CE was owned by “Premiere Aircraft Management Inc”, based at 2634 Airport Drive, Suite 106, North Las Vegas, which also just happened to be the home of Vision Air Inc, as it was then known.
Further, in a 1999 sworn application for a “‘Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity”, Vision Air’s Chair William S Acor and his brother, Vice President Steven S Acor, confirmed that between them they owned two thirds of the private corporation’s shares. In that application it was also revealed that: “Vision Air owns 20 per cent of Premiere Aircraft Management Inc, a part 125 operator of a Boeing Business jet (B737).”
In a 1999 sworn “Certificate of good Standing”, it said that William S Acor was the “President/Secretary of Premiere Aircraft Management Inc a part 125 operator of a Boeing Business Jet (B737)”. Which of course was N368CE.
Meanwhile the riches had been turning back to rags at Vision. The scheduled services between American cities haven’t worked out and most were quickly shut down. On 29th November 2012 Cuba reduced the number of American travel companies operating trips to the island, in particular terminating C-and-T, which happened to be Vision’s biggest customer.
It got worse: in February 2013 the state of Florida and Okaloosa County filed Grand Theft charges relating to public "passenger facility charge" (PFCs) fees that Vision had collected but failed to pass on, during the carrier's ill-fated attempt to create a hub at Northwest Florida Regional Airport. According to the Northwest Florida Daily News, Vision paid up the full $117,659.98 owed for 2010 to 2012, within 24 hours of the criminal charges being filed. The charges were dropped. Meanwhile Vision also lost the court case over the missing “hazard pay” and so far its appeals have failed. There are other creditors circling.
But, however bleak the prospects may be, it has always recovered before. Losing C-and-T may have been bad news but Vision has subcontracted planes into Cuba for other tour companies like Gulfstream Air Charters, Marazul Charters Inc, Sky King and Airline Brokers Company Inc. There is no reason to believe that Vision will be short of business in the future.
In any case its friends may be able to help it out again. On 9th July 2010 the US Government hired one of Vision Airlines underused Boeing 767’s to fly Anna Chapman and nine other alleged Russian spies to Vienna Airport, where a Russian plane was waiting with four American spies waiting to be exchanged. The return trip landed at Dulles International Airport which is, conveniently, only about 18 miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The question remains: how does this corporation survive? At any one time it usually has a fleet of about six medium sized Boeing jets, all capable of carrying over 100 people. It certainly can’t afford to run them by flying College football teams to games or taking customers to “Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino” which is the kind of business it normally generates.
Luckily the Latin American regimes that America doesn’t like are all in range of the Boeings and Vision usually has some available for hire. The flights to Kabul, Baghdad, and Venezuela, together with regular charters to Cuba, make up a good part of America’s recent wish list for regime change. Last year, Vision looked into the possibility of flights to the US pacific base at Guam and on to South Korea, which would be convenient for any American action against People’s Korea. In the case of Cuba, the “Cuba transition planners” referred to in the US Interests section cable from Havana, would definitely have Vision pencilled in as their carrier of choice, when the time comes.
Vision is obviously sinister, there are other charter operators flying into Cuba which come from a more progressive tradition, or at least appear to. Tom Cooper, for example, has been organising flights on behalf of Gulfstream Air Charters Inc, (part of the Gulfstream International group now owned by Silver Airlines) since he founded it in 1989. Thomas L Cooper Senior, as he is known to his less progressive contacts, has been operating flights in the Caribbean since his days as a pilot for Continental and Eastern in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was a pioneer of charter flights to Cuba and despite financial difficulties and a takeover, he is still a player.
When the US Interests section cabled the State Department about the Transport Security Commission delegation, “‘Tom Cooper” was its main source and he has always been happy to give press interviews, even to left wing papers. He’s also politically active, involved with a “progressive” think-tank; The Center for International Policy (CIP) which is "promoting a US foreign policy based on international cooperation, demilitarisation and respect for human rights”. Cooper has sponsored meetings and is happy to be an occasional financial supporter of this “left of centre” research and lobbying group. CIP grew out of a group of US Diplomats, Security and Foreign Service experts and activists loosely based around the Democratic Party in the Vietnam War years.
According to its Form 990 application for exemption from Income Tax for 2011, its largest contributor was NORAD, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s aid arm. Norway, like Germany, Austria, and the other Scandinavian countries with a social democratic tradition, have all used foreign aid to finance apparently progressive “Non-Governmental Organisations” as a means of destabilising communist and other progressive countries since the 1950’s. In 2011 NORAD contributed $1.8 Million out of CIP’s total grant income of $3.8 million.
NORAD itself has also been directly involved in “training” trades unionists in Cuba, something which it is able to do while the AFL-CIO (the American trade union centre) cannot, because it became too well known as a conduit for State Department funds.
CIP’s other financial backers that year included the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute (funded by the George Soros foundation) both of which have been heavily involved in funding “regime change” in support of American foreign policy. Other contributing funds with an interest in Cuba or South America are the Columbe Foundation ($125 000) and the Instituto Credito Oficial, Spain ($196 035).
CIP lobbies Washington for the removal of all travel restrictions to Cuba, as a means of bringing about the collapse of socialism on the island, more effectively (it hopes) than the discredited blockade promoted by the right. Cooper supports this and as a “liberal” democrat, involved in the business of flying Cuban-American charter passengers in and out of Cuba, this doesn’t seem out of place.
However Cooper’s business, Gulfstream international Airways, is not what it seems. Founded in 1989 and after briefly operating from Haiti, it was forced to relocate to the Bahamas where it started a regular service to Cuba. From its base in Fort Lauderdale it also has its charter flights between Cuba and America, whenever the US government has allowed them.
The Cuban charter trade always seems to throw together some unlikely partners; soon after it was formed GIA also won the sensitive contract to carry the weekly diplomatic pouch for the US interests section in Havana.
Even stranger, on 1st February 2005 the Computer Sciences Corporation announced that its DynCorp Technical Services division had won the contract for the operation and maintenance of the US Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre (AUTEC) in the Bahamas. The contract will last up to 15 years and is worth an estimated $762 million.
AUTEC is a “top secret range and test facility base that provides both deep and shallow water test and training environments for the US Navy”. Its work would be very interesting to America’s enemies, not least to Cuba: its contractors need security clearance to work there. The Bahamas Naval base would also make a convenient and confidential starting point for any anti-Cuban provocation.
CSC/DynCorp is part of the lucrative world of private contractors to the US military and was fully involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the rendition programme. It also contracted with Vision Airlines, amongst others, for the air bridge.
The AUTEC contract involves sites at far flung locations including Andros Island, the Bahamas, West Palm Beach, Cape Canaveral and Yorktown. Staff need to move between these sites and CSC has subcontracted all its air transport obligations to Tom Cooper’s Gulfstream International Airlines – that’s the outfit that has also been providing air charter flights in and out of Cuba for the last 25 years.
It is simply not possible that the sensitive, classified government contracts that both Vision Airlines and Gulfstream International Airlines have been able to win would be granted to organisations flying in and out of Cuba unless they were doing so with the support of the US government.
These two examples, from left and right, are probably just the tip of an iceberg; in reality most of the links between the US and Cuba are being used to subvert socialism in the island and the Cubans are well aware of it.
Spotting a few of the sources of potential attacks doesn’t stop the war; America has airlines to spare and most have financial problems that would benefit from a few profitable charter contracts, with no questions asked. When one is caught out, the planes get transferred or sold on. Sometimes that means it’s simpler just to keep them painted white.