CHAPTER 2 : North Carolina’s Role in Torture: Hosting Aero Contractors, Ltd.

Chapter Two

North Carolina’s Role in Torture: Hosting Aero Contractors, Ltd.

Publicly available information and testimony to the Commission indicate that North Carolina played a critical role in enabling the U.S. RDI program. To date, the Commission has confirmed that at least 49 individuals were rendered by North Carolina-operated planes and pilots. This chapter focuses on the role of Aero Contractors, Ltd. and the county and state entities and officials responsible for hosting the company at public airports. The Commission has confirmed that at least 49 individuals were rendered by North Carolina-operated planes and pilots.

According to testimony provided to the Commission, “research shows conclusively that aircraft operated by Aero Contractors played a central role in the CIA torture program.”200 From 2001 until 2004, Aero Contractors operated two aircraft owned by a series of CIA shell companies — a 737 Boeing Business Jet originally numbered N313P and a Gulfstream V originally numbered N379P — on behalf of the CIA.201 Aero Contractors utilized two airports in North Carolina for these purposes: Johnston County Airport (JNX) in Smithfield, N.C. for N379P202 and Kinston Regional Jetport at the state-run Global TransPark for N313P.203
     The individuals linked to Aero-operated rendition flights and associated rendition circuits are identified below. Also identified here and listed in the appendix are the rendition aircrafts ownership and registration information, which demonstrate ownership of the aircraft by various CIA shell companies, as well as the extent to which “[i]n order to maintain the secrecy of the CIA’s torture program, a number of aircraft involved were re-registered at various times, to ensure that they were given new tail numbers.”204


Aero Contractors was formed on September 28, 1979.206 It is incorporated in Delaware as a “[c]ontract aviation services” business,207 and its filings with the North Carolina Department of State list four corporate addresses in Smithfield, North Carolina.208 Its founder was Jim Rhyne, “a legendary C.I.A. officer and chief pilot for Air America, the agency’s Vietnam-era air company.”209 Aero Contractors’ involvement in clandestine transfer of individuals pre-dated 9/11, as the company operated rendition flights in the 1990s for the U.S. government.210 When the Central Intelligence Agency wants to grab a suspected member of Al Qaeda overseas and deliver him to interrogators in another country, an Aero Contractors plane often does the job.

Aero Contractors’ role in operating rendition aircraft on behalf of the CIA to transfer detainees to foreign custody and/or CIA custody is now well-documented. In 2005, it was first reported

When the Central Intelligence Agency wants to grab a suspected member of Al Qaeda overseas and deliver him to interrogators in another country, an Aero Contractors plane often does the job. If agency experts need to fly overseas in a hurry after the capture of a prized prisoner, a plane will depart Johnston County and stop at Dulles Airport outside Washington to pick up the C.I.A. team on the way.211

According to a University of North Carolina School of Law report: “Aero served as a CIA-affiliated company that flew under the CIA’s direction”212 as the “operating company” of aircraft that were “registered to dummy corporations.”213 Using these aircraft, Aero Contractors’ role included: “provid[ing] and/or operat[ing] the transportation necessary to capture and transfer the [detainees] to overseas detention facilities and ‘black sites.’”214 A 2006 report by Rapporteur Giovanni Claudio Fava, on behalf of the European Parliament Temporary Committee on the Alleged Use of European Countries by the CIA for the Transport and Illegal Detention of Prisoners, similarly describes Aero Contractors as the “operating company of the following shell companies” of the CIA: Stevens Express Leasing, Inc., Premier Executive Transport Service (PETS), Aviation Specialties, Inc., and Devon Holding and Leasing, Inc.215 “We are the bus drivers in the war on terror. I didn’t used to check who was in the back.”

Aero Contractors’ personnel were also deeply involved in the RDI program. “Usually, a small number of Aero personnel would fly the plane from North Carolina (either Kinston or Smithfield) to Dulles International Airport, where it would pick up a ‘rendition team’ made up of approximately 12 U.S. officials.”216 Interviews “with former CIA pilots, 2005-2006,” have linked Aero Contractors’ pilots to the RDI program. “‘We are the bus drivers in the war on terror. I didn’t used to check who was in the back,’ one former Aero Contractors pilot recalled.”217 The same account states that “former pilots from Aero Contractors” had “gotten their jobs responding to advertisements for CIA pilots, and they had their interviews down in Langley, Virginia.”218
     The crews of N313P have been described as “CIA pilots,” who flew from Johnston County, NC, to Dulles International Airport to pick up “men and women . . . from the Rendition Group.”219 It has been estimated that “at least 40 to 50 pilots flew Aero planes for CIA ‘renditions.’”220 Despite having used aliases in flight manifests, three of the pilots identified as having been implicated in the renditions of Binyam Mohamed (from Morocco to Afghanistan) and Khaled El-Masri (from Macedonia to Afghanistan) in January 2004 are reported to be employees of Aero Contractors and in 2007 were reported to “live within a 30-minute drive of the guarded Aero hangar and offices at the rural Johnston County airport.”221
     While there is no direct evidence that Aero personnel knew they were implicated in torture, there are indications of conscious participation in illegal activity. For example, the pilots flew in and out of at least one eastern European CIA “black site” under cover of “dummy” flight plans that falsely listed nearby destinations in order to conceal the true purpose of these missions, according to a Council of Europe Report.222 False flight plans are a violation under international aviation law.223
     In addition to investigative reporting and testimony before the Commission, described above and further below, there are a number of U.S. government documents and statements of Aero Contractors’ representatives that confirm the close relationship between Aero Contractors and the government:

  • Aero Contractors representatives have publicly confirmed that the U.S. government is a long-held client,224 for which it does “most of” its work225 and that this work is “sensitive in nature.”226
  • In 2005, Robert Blowers, then-assistant general manager of Aero Contractors, stated that Aero Contractors had “leased” two aircraft N379P and N313P “for about a year, in about 2002 or 2003” from Premier Executive Transport Services (PETS),227 a company that has been repeatedly identified as a CIA shell company.228
  • A 2007 CIA Inspector General “Report of Investigation on the Rendition and Detention of German Citizen Khalid Al-Masri” [referred to elsewhere in the present report as Khaled El-Masri] refers to his January 2004 “rendition” and states that “Al-Masri was taken into CIA custody and transported from [redacted] aboard an Agency aircraft.”229 This “Agency aircraft” has been identified as N313P, owned by PETS, and operated by Aero Contractors for the rendition of Mr. Al-Masri from Skopje, Macedonia to Afghanistan.230

    Local and state officials in North Carolina are implicated in the activities of Aero Contractors, Ltd. These officials permitted North Carolina’s public airports to be used for rendition flights, leased space and/or allowed a hangar to be built for rendition aircraft, and refused to investigate allegations of the involvement of Aero Contractors, Ltd. in the RDI program.231
         The Johnston County Airport Authority: The Johnston County Airport Authority began leasing airport space to Aero’s founder in 1993 under a self-renewing contract.232 The airport provides disaster recovery guarantees, protective fencing and access control, security, and runway services. Johnston County has provided permits for construction work and safety inspections at Aero’s premises.233
         Global TransPark Authority: Kinston Regional Jetport is located in the North Carolina Global TransPark, “a 2500-acre multi-modal industrial park and airport,”234 near Kinston in Lenoir County, NC.235 The North Carolina Global TransPark Authority (GTPA) — a state agency236 — is “responsible for planning, building, and operating” the facility.237 The GTPA was chaired by former North Carolina governors from 2002-2009.238 239 Aero Contractors had lease agreements dated July 2, 2002240 and January 15, 2004241 with the GTPA. It also entered into an agreement on January 15, 2004 to “construct a new aircraft hangar” on the premises;242 with “credit extended by North Carolina,”243 such that Aero agreed to reimburse the GTPA for amounts paid to design and build the hangar.244 Prior to the hangar’s construction and pending its completion, reportedly “Aero Contractors stored the $50-million-plus aircraft [N313P] outside at the North Carolina Global TransPark (GTP) site of the jetport.”245
         The construction of the 20,000 square foot hangar was completed in October 2004.246 Under the January 15, 2004 lease, Aero Contractors also received a credit against the rent for the “appropriate proportion” of the $60,000 “up fit costs” as described in the earlier 2002 commercial lease agreement.247 GTPA purchased the hangar and accessories from Aero for $1.5 million on Oct. 8, 2007.248 It is uncertain whether this represented a profit for Aero. At least 26 planes were owned by the CIA through a number of shell companies, and “the facility that turns up most often in records of the 26 planes is little Johnston County Airport.250

    While Aero Contractors’ known rendition aircraft were based at just two North Carolina airports, the company has utilized a large number of other North Carolina airports, linking citizens all across the state to the company’s secret activities.249


    As of 2005, media reporting identified at least 26 planes owned by the CIA through a number of shell companies, and “the facility that turns up most often in records of the 26 planes is little Johnston County Airport.”250 The analysis of The Rendition Project and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism presented to the Commission has connected 19 aircraft to the “CIA’s torture program,” of which “two were operated by the North Carolina-based company Aero Contractors” : N313P and N379P. Contractors”251 — N313P and N379P.


    Aero Contractors operated a 737 Boeing Business Jet registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as N313P, a jet which “flew for the CIA for more than four years.”252 Until July 2006, it was “linked to the CIA . . . through front companies and post office boxes in the Washington, D.C. area.”253 A review of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records and other reporting reveals numerous sales and registrations of the aircraft that would make it more difficult to trace its use.
         The details of the relationship between Aero Contractors, PETS, and Keeler & Tate Management, LLC are also set out in the December 6, 2005 complaint Khaled El-Masri v. George J. Tenet et al. concerning the rendition of German citizen Khaled El-Masri on board N313P, which states that the defendant, Aero, was “contracted by defendant PETS to operate the above-mentioned Boeing business jet, and specifically to transport plaintiff from Skopje, Macedonia to detention and interrogation in Afghanistan”254 . The complaint identifies Keeler & Tate Management, LLC as the “corporate successor” to PETS.255


    Aero Contractors also operated a Gulfstream V aircraft registered with the FAA as N379P and then subsequently re-registered as N8068V, N44982, and N126CH.256 Aero Contractors operated N379P during the RDI program from October 2001 onward.257 It is an aircraft that Dick Marty, former member of the Council of Europe, describes as “one of the most notorious ‘rendition’ aircraft”258 in the context of a Council of Europe inquiry into “Alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers involving Council of Europe member states.” The shifting ownership and registration information is as follows: Gulfstream V N379P was owned by the CIA shell company PETS until December 1, 2004.259 During the early years of the RDI program, the aircraft operated from its base at the Johnston County Airport under tail numbers N379P and N8068V, and it was registered twice more in 2004 and 2006.

    Source: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

    Infographic: Christian Johnson, XianStudio


    According to testimony provided to the Commission:

  • Aero reportedly rendered “at least 49 individuals – and likely more,” including to interrogations in foreign custody and/or CIA custody in “black sites.”260 This figure is based on 32 identified circuits that are linked to 69 individual renditions (individuals were sometimes rendered more than once on Aero aircraft).261 Aero’s two aircraft reportedly “rendered prisoners into the CIA black site network from a number of locations around the world, including Egypt, The Gambia, Morocco, Malawi, Iraq, UAE, Jordan, Djibouti, and Macedonia.”262
  • Approximately one-third of the individuals in direct CIA custody during the RDI program were reportedly transported by Aero Contractors. Specifically, testimony presented to the Commission indicates Aero transported 34 out of the 119 individuals known to have been in direct CIA custody.263 According to this testimony, Aero Contractors aircraft were “central to the rendition of so-called ‘High-Value Detainees’ (HVDs) between CIA ‘black sites.’ Many HVDs were held in multiple ‘black sites,’ and were rendered between them on numerous occasions.”264
  • The other 15 of the 49 prisoners were reportedly rendered by Aero Contractors to “proxy detention or U.S. military detention.”265
  • In addition, North Carolina Stop Torture Now has identified a further 77 flight circuits undertaken by the aircraft N379P and N313P between September 11, 2001 and June 10, 2005 that resemble rendition circuits (e.g., involve countries that hosted CIA “black sites”), the purposes of which have not yet been confirmed, including whether/which individuals were transported on these flights.266
  • Four of the six267 rendition circuits that have been linked to N313P268 are as follows:

  • Circuit Date(s):   September 20-25, 2003 269
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           High-Value Detainees | Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Morocco, and Guantánamo Bay

    Circuit Date(s):   January 5-10, 2004 270
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Hassan bin Attash | Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Morocco, and Guantánamo Bay
           li al-Hajj al Sharqawi | Jordan to Afghanistan
           Binyam Mohammed | Morocco to Afghanistan

    Circuit Date(s):   January 15-28, 2004 271
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Khaled el-Masri | Macedonia to Afghanistan

    Circuit Date(s):   March 6-14, 2004 272
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Abdel Hakim Belhadj | Thailand to Libya (via Diego Garcia)
           Fatima Boudchar | Thailand to Libya (via Diego Garcia)
           Yunus Rahmatullah | Iraq to Afghanistan
           Amanatullah Ali | Iraq to Afghanistan

    AfghanistanAircraft N379P has been linked to 26 rendition circuits between December 2001 and March 2004, according to the Rendition Project.273 The identified flights often involve renditions of more than one person, as well as “more than one rendition operation per circuit.”274 The Rendition Project has identified some of these rendition circuits as follows:

    Circuit Date(s):   December 18-20, 2001 275
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Ahmed Agiza | Sweden to Egypt
           Mohamed el-Zery | Sweden to Egypt

    Circuit Date(s):   January 9-15, 2002 276
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni | Indonesia to Egypt (via Diego Garcia)

    Circuit Date(s):   February 6-16, 2002 277
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Ali al-Hajj al-Sharqawi | Afghanistan to Jordan (possible)

    Circuit Date(s):   April 8-15, 2002 278
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni | Egypt to Afghanistan (via Uzbekistan)
           Mamdouh Habib | Egypt to Afghanistan (via Uzbekistan)

    Circuit Date(s):   May 22-26, 2002 279
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Abou Elkassim Britel | Pakistan to Morocco

    Circuit Date(s):   July 17-23, 2002 280
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Binyam Mohamed and two others | Pakistan to Morocco
           Unidentified detainee | Southeast Asia to Egypt or Morocco (via Diego Garcia)

    Circuit Date(s):   September 11-19, 2002 281
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Ramzi bin al-Shibh | Afghanistan to Jordan and/or Morocco
           Hassan bin Attash | Afghanistan to Jordan and/or Morocco

    Circuit Date(s):   November 12-18, 2002 282
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri | Afghanistan to Thailand (possible)

    Circuit Date(s):   December 8-17, 2002 283
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Bisher al-Rawi | The Gambia to Afghanistan (via Egypt)
           Jamil el-Banna | The Gambia to Afghanistan (via Egypt)

    Circuit Date(s):   February 6-13, 2003 284
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Ramzi bin al-Shibh | Morocco to Poland (possible)

    Circuit Date(s):   March 1-9, 2003 285
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Khaled Sheikh Mohammed | Afghanistan to Poland

    Circuit Date(s):   June 3-7, 2003 286
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri | Poland to Morocco
           Ramzi bin al-Shibh | Poland to Morocco

    Circuit Date(s):   October 24-30, 2003 287
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah | Jordan to Afghanistan

    Circuit Date(s):   January 20-29, 2004 288
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Khaled al-Maqtari | Iraq to Afghanistan

    Circuit Date(s):   March 6-13, 2004 289
    Detainee(s) & Location(s):
           Gouled Hassan Dourad | Djibouti to Afghanistan, Morocco or Guantánamo Bay (possible)


    Aero Contractors’ central role in the CIA’s RDI program has been confirmed by investigative reporting, testimony before the Commission, and reports such as those by the European Parliament Temporary Committee on the “Alleged Use of European Countries by the CIA for the Transport and Illegal Detention of Prisoners.” That role would not have been possible without the use of state and local infrastructure, including Johnston County Airport and the Global TransPark in Kinston, NC. State and county officials approved upgrades to these facilities such as hangar construction and security enhancements during the period that the RDI program was operational.
         The available information also points to several areas for more investigation. These include but are not limited to the potential role of other North Carolina airports in the RDI program, the purposes of and passengers on other Aero-operated flights conducted during this period, and the knowledge of North Carolina’s public officials of the nature of Aero’s operations.

    Protestors outside the gate of Aero Contractors, Ltd.

    Photo courtesy: NCSTN