‘Ghost pilots’ of the CIA’s rendition team
The forecast called for heavy snow on the route home, so the three pilots who had just flown a covert CIA-sponsored “extraordinary rendition” flight were forced to stay an extra night at the Gran Melia Victoria, a luxury hotel overlooking the marina on the island of Majorca.
Up in Room 552, the pilot who called himself Capt. James Fairing picked up the phone at 2:28 in the afternoon and dialed his tree-shaded home in a subdivision carved out of pine forests here in Clayton, about 15 miles southeast of Raleigh. He also called his employer, a North Carolina-based air charter service that long has worked for the CIA.
Fairing’s copilot, who registered as Eric Matthew Fain, reached for the phone in his room and called a woman back home with whom he owns a 22-foot speedboat and who also flies missions for the CIA. The third pilot from the stranded flight carried a U.S. passport issued to Kirk James Bird. The passport photo shows a balding, middle-age man with a broad smile.
The names they used were all aliases, but The Times confirmed their real identities from government databases and visited their homes this month after a German court in January ordered the arrest of the three “ghost pilots” and 10 other alleged members of the CIA’s special renditions unit on charges of kidnapping and causing serious bodily harm to Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, three years ago.
Charged under aliases
None of the pilots responded to repeated requests for comment left with family members and on their home telephones. The Times is not publishing their real names because they have been charged only under their aliases.
Relying on the operatives’ passport numbers, hotel records, credit card bills and aviation records, German prosecutors are seeking to properly identify the 13 Americans in a high-profile case that has upset relations between Washington and Berlin and caused a political scandal in Germany over whether government officials sanctioned the CIA operation.
Elsewhere in Europe, legal and parliamentary investigations have focused a harsh spotlight on the CIA’s program to abduct suspected terrorists and ferry them to secret sites for interrogation, operations known variously as “black renditions” or “extraordinary renditions.”
On Friday, an Italian judge issued arrest warrants for 26 suspected CIA operatives for allegedly abducting a radical 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.
All the Americans charged, including the top two CIA officers in Italy at the time, have departed the country, but Italian law allows defendants to be tried in absentia.
None of the aliases used in Italy match those in the German case, although one of the pilots may have been involved in both incidents.
One former CIA operation officer who was involved in the Italian case at CIA headquarters, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case is classified, said he and his colleagues were increasingly nervous about traveling in Europe for fear of getting swept up in the investigations. He said he checked with a contact at the Italian intelligence service for reassurance that he would not be arrested.
Seized in error
According to Masri’s account, he was detained by local authorities while crossing from Serbia into Macedonia on Dec. 31, 2003. Three weeks later, seven or eight men in masks stripped him naked, put him in a diaper and jumpsuit, drugged him and then chained him, spread-eagle and blindfolded, to the floor of a Boeing 737 that flew to Afghanistan on Jan. 24, 2004. German prosecutors say the men in masks were with the CIA rendition team.
At the time, U.S. intelligence authorities believed Masri was involved with radical Islamic groups in Ulm, a city in southern Germany. Masri was released five months later after undergoing what he described as repeated beatings and other physical abuse in a now-closed CIA-run prison called the Salt Pit in Kabul, the Afghan capital. U.S. officials have told German authorities that Masri was seized and imprisoned in error because his name is similar to that of a suspected terrorist linked to Al Qaeda.
Flight records show that Aero Contractors, based in Smithfield, N.C., operated the plane that carried Masri from Macedonia to Afghanistan. The charter aircraft company has flown scores of sensitive missions for the CIA and has played a key support role in counter-terrorism operations since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to former agency officials.
The three pilots in the Masri rendition case live within a 30-minute drive of the guarded Aero hangar and offices at the rural Johnston County airport. Reached by telephone Saturday, Aero official Freddy Pearce declined to discuss any aspect of the company’s business.
The chief pilot in the Masri case, who used the alias Fairing, called Pearce at his Clayton home during his layover in Spain.
In real life, the chief pilot is 52, drives a Toyota Previa minivan and keeps a collection of model trains in a glass display case near a large bubbling aquarium in his living room. Federal aviation records show he is rated to fly seven kinds of aircraft as long as he wears his glasses.
His wife, reached by phone at her office, said her husband had done no wrong. “He’s just a pilot,” she said.
His copilot, who used the alias Fain, is a bearded man of 35 who lives with his father and two dogs in a separate subdivision. He called home during a subsequent mission from the Royal Plaza Hotel on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, according to records collected by Spanish investigators from the Guardia Civil.
The third pilot, who used the alias Bird, is 46, drives a Ford Explorer and has a 17-foot aluminum fishing boat. Certified as a flight instructor, he keeps plastic models of his favorite planes mounted by the fireplace in his living room in a house that backs onto a private golf course here. His wife declined to comment.
On the flight back to Washington, after the snow had cleared, the rendition team celebrated by ordering 17 shrimp cocktails and three bottles of fine Spanish wine, according to catering invoices obtained by the prosecutors.