The American aerospace giant Boeing became the first major company ensnared in the CIA's controversial "rendition" program Wednesday, when the American Civil Liberties Union sued its subsidiary, Jeppesen Dataplan, for allegedly facilitating secret flights of terrorism suspects overseas.
The ACLU lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Jose, California, where Jeppesen is headquartered, alleges Jeppesen arranged more than 70 secret CIA prisoner flights between 2001 and 2005, providing services such as pilot routes, weather reports, fuel plans, landing permits, in-flight catering, and crew accommodations.
"American companies should not be profiting from the CIA rendition program that is unlawful and contrary to American values," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. "Corporations that choose to participate in such activities can and must be held accountable in American courts of law."
The lawsuit highlights the flight records of two jet planes, a Gulfstream V and a Boeing 737, both allegedly serviced by Jeppessen in connection with rendition flights for three plaintiffs, according to the ACLU:
Ahmed Agiza, 45, an Egyptian citizen, was living in Sweden, when U.S. agents picked him up in December 2001, after Sweden rejected his asylum application. Flight records show, Agiza was flown on the Gulfstream to Egypt, where he remains incarcerated.
Abou Elkassim Britel, 40, an Italian citizen of Moroccan heritage, was working in Pakistan translating Islamic books from Arabic to Italian. In March 2002, U.S. agents detained him, and flight records show, Britel was flown on the Gulfstream from Islamabad, Pakistan to Rabat, Morocco, where he remains incarcerated.
Binyam Mohamed, 28, an Ethiopian citizen and legal UK resident, was detained by Pakistanis authorities as he tried to fly home to Britain. Turned over to U.S. agents in Islamabad, Mohamed was flown on the Gulfstream in July 2002 to Rabat. Eighteen months later, he was flown on the Boeing to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was detained four months, before being transferred in May 2004 to the U.S. Navy facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains.
"All three men have been subjected to brutal torture and abuse, and their families have lost a brother, husbands, and a father," said ACLU attorney Steven Watt. "Today, all three are imprisoned in countries far from their loved ones and held under conditions that you and I cannot begin to imagine."
Agiza, who remains imprisoned in Egypt, and Britel, who remains imprisoned in Morocco, have been able to describe their experiences to relatives allowed to visit them. Mohamed has told his story to a British attorney who has visited him at Guantanamo.
All three plaintiffs have described a similar rendition flight scenario – masked men dressed in black, cutting off their clothes, blindfolding and shackling them on planes.
During their imprisonments, the mistreatment was worse, according to the men. Agiza says his Egyptian captors prodded him with electric shocks. Britel says in Morocco he was severely beaten and deprived of food. Mohamed says in Kabul, he was kept in a pitch black cell 23 hours a day and didn't see the sun for two years.
The ACLU pointed to European government inquiries that allegedly corroborated the flight records. A Council of Europe report labeled rendition a "spider's web" of secret transfers.
An invoice from Stockholm's airport provided by the ACLU indicated Jeppesen's bill for handling Agiza's flight was 4,373 Swedish krona, more than $6,500.
Stephen Grey, author of "Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program," says Swedish, Spanish, and other available flight records reveal Jeppesen's role.
"Their name appears on the records, their employees appear on the records, telexes come from Jeppesen ordering these planes to be facilitated when they land at these airports," Grey says. "Precisely what they knew about the purpose of these planes, whether they knew that prisoners were being transferred from these planes to countries where some of these prisoners were tortured, I don't know."
Neither Jeppesen nor the CIA would comment on the lawsuit or confirm any business relationship.
"But it's important to bear in mind that renditions are a key, lawful tool in the fight against terror. They have helped save lives by taking terrorists off the streets," said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield. "The CIA does not conduct or condone torture, nor does it transfer anyone to other countries for the purpose of torture."
Boeing spokesman Tim Neale said he could not discuss whether or not the CIA was a client. "Jeppesen provides flight plans and does so on a confidential basis," Neale said.
An earlier rendition lawsuit brought by the ACLU targeted the CIA and small aviation company in North Carolina where some of the flights originated. That suit, on behalf of German car salesman Khaled El-Masri, who was rendered from Macedonia to an Afghan prison three years ago, has been dismissed by a federal judge and a federal appeals court.
On Wednesday, the ACLU filed a petition with the Supreme Court to hear El-Masri's case.
The government has successfully blocked post-September 11th legal challenges to certain national security measures, such as rendition and warrant-less domestic wiretaps, by invoking the privilege that a public trial would improperly expose state secrets.
"The privilege, which was created to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information, has instead become a device by which the government seeks to avoid accountability and embarrassment," said ACLU Attorney Ben Wizner. "I think it is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and add some clarity to this doctrine."