The CIA's No-Questions-Asked Travel Agent

A private corporation joins Bush administration's conspiracy to obstruct justice

CIA director Michael Hayden, defending the practice of sending terrorism suspects to countries that interrogate by torture via secret "renditions," told USA Today last month that this program is "lawful, in keeping with Western values.

"I've never managed a more sensitive, law-abiding workforce [than the CIA] in my life," added the former head of the National Security Agency, which has long engaged in lawless spying on American phone calls and e-mails.

In its story, USA Today failed to note that a 1998 U.S. law, the Foreign Affairs and Restructuring Act, explicitly states: "It shall be the policy of the United States not to expel, extradite or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

The ACLU, in its lawsuit against Boeing's subsidiary, Jeppesen DataPlan (which, among other things, operates an elite travel agency), is representing three victims of the CIA's renditions—an Ethiopian, Italian, and Egyptian. In court papers, the ACLU reveals how this branch of the world's largest aerospace company collaborates with Hayden's "men in black" to ignore both our laws and international treaties:

"In providing its services to the CIA, Jeppesen knew or reasonably should have known that plaintiffs would be subjected to forced disappearances, detention, and torture in countries where such practices are routine. Indeed, according to published reports, Jeppesen had actual knowledge of its activities [violating the Alien Tort Statute of 1789]."

The ACLU then goes to the smoking gun in this case, as first reported by The New Yorker's Jane Mayer in "The CIA's Travel Agent" (October 30, 2006):

"A former Jeppesen employee, who asked not to be identified, said recently that he had been startled to learn, during an internal corporate meeting, about the company's involvement with the rendition flights. At the meeting, he recalled, Bob Overby, the managing director of Jeppesen International Trip Planning, said, 'We do all of the extraordinary rendition flights—you know, the torture flights. Let's face it, some of these flights end up that way.'"

Mayer also reported that Overby was heard to say that the CIA flights paid well because the agency had no worries about how it spent the taxpayers' money.

After I saw Mayer's story last October, I called Jeppesen's San Jose, California, headquarters for a reaction. Nobody would talk to me. So I called Boeing's Chicago headquarters. All I got was a round of "no comments."

Once the ACLU lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Jose on May 30, 2007, Mike Pound, a spokesman for Jeppesen, told the Associated Press the next day:

"We don't know the purpose of the trip for which we do a flight plan. We don't need to know specific details. It's the customer's business, and we do the business that we are contracted for. It's not our practice to ever inquire about the purpose of a trip."

How interesting it would be to contrast that corporate alibi with what Overby might say in a courtroom, under oath, about Jeppesen's frequent spare-no-expenses customer.

But before this case can get before a judge and jury, I predict—and I'll be delighted to be wrong—that the Bush administration will intervene and argue that the case cannot be heard on national-security grounds, because the CIA's "sources and methods" could be revealed to the enemy. This is the "state secrets" privilege that the Bush Justice Department has invoked more than any previous administration—with the result that an open-society judge in another important case said, "Democracy dies behind closed doors."

That judge was the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' Damon Keith in 2002, when then–Attorney General John Ashcroft, tearing up the First Amendment, closed deportation hearings for alleged terrorism suspects to the press. Ruling against Ashcroft, Judge Keith emphasized: "The only safeguard against this extraordinary government power is the public."

And that's why the current ACLU lawsuit against Boeing's Jeppesen travel agency is so vital. Neither the Congress nor the courts have yet directly probed the so-called legal basis on which George W. Bush gave the CIA "special powers" to conduct these renditions (the text of which order he will not release).

But at least in this case, the public may be able to hold up to scrutiny the practice of CIA agents, all in black, dragging their hooded, shackled prisoners onto Boeing 737s for journeys meticulously planned by the Jeppesen travel agency, on their way to other countries' torture chambers.

Michael Hayden may then finally be called before a Congressional committee. There, he would be confronted and ordered to provide the specific laws that have permitted him to orchestrate this spider's web of rendition flights.

Also, if there are indeed such laws that legitimize torture—the practice of which everyone in this administration indignantly denies—then why does the Justice Department need to invoke "state secrets" in these cases?

What will become clear to the public, if there is a trial, is that this administration's pervasive "national security" secrecy and lawlessness have actually created a far-ranging conspiracy to obstruct justice. And in these "torture flight" cases, such private corporations as Boeing and its Jeppesen travel agency criminally become part of this conspiracy, which has twisted the rule of law out of any recognizable shape.

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