US military flights ‘not checked in Shannon’, says pilot

US pilot who flew armed people to CIA jails in Kabul was not inspected on Irish stopovers

Secret US military flights that refuelled in Shannon during America’s “war on terror” were never checked at the airport, according to a former pilot who flew military personnel to Afghanistan.

Bill, an American contract pilot who worked for a private US company, flew small numbers of US government personnel on trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan during the George W Bush years.

The pilot, who did not want to be identified, said that he never carried any al-Qaeda suspects on so-called “rendition” flights. Some passengers did have weapons but were instructed to store them in the plane’s luggage hold, he said.

Passengers, who Bill was told were State Department officials or diplomats, were flown to the Afghan capital of Kabul where the CIA ran one of its secret prisons or "black sites" as well as to other locations in the region.

A report released by Democrats on the US Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday revealed how detainees were tortured at these sites using techniques that were “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented” under the “renditions, detentions and interrogations” programme.

The methods included slamming detainees into walls (known as “slammings”), dousing them with water in a practice called ‘waterboarding’ to the point of “near drownings” and forcing detainees with broken fee to stand in stressed positions without sleep for hours.

The Senate report, which has ignited a firestorm over the CIA’s use of torture, contains no references to the use of Shannon or any other Irish airport – or to the kind of flights that Bill flew.

Shannon was used as a refuelling stop by US military-leased planes on circuits where, it is claimed, CIA detainees were ferried between prisons in Asia and Europe, either before or after landing in Shannon during the renditions programme.

Irish airports

The Rendition Project, a database compiled by two UK-based academic researchers who tracked 200 aircraft linked to CIA missions and Reprieve, a human rights legal charity, have identified 11 planes landing at Irish airports between 2002 and 2004 which, based on evidence available to them, suggests that the aircraft were on their way to, or on their way back from, known renditions of detainees.

They claim another 16 aircraft passed through Irish airports between 2002 and 2006 on circuits connecting two or more secret prison locations, suggesting that they were further rendition operations.

Even though the Garda has the authority to search aircraft passing through Shannon, Bill says nobody ever boarded to check his plane during the US government trips he flew through Shannon. Nor did anyone ask about his passengers or where he was going.

“All my passengers were US State Department people – or at least that’s what they pretended to be,” said Bill, adding that they carried US diplomatic passports.

At Shannon, Bill alighted to sign refuelling records. Everything was prearranged so the plane could refuel quickly and continue on its way.

Camouflaged This wasn’t unusual, he said. Some airports don’t check aircraft or passengers if the plane lands for a refuelling or “tech” stop

. Bill’s destinations included a remote base in Pakistan, which, other than a runaway, couldn’t be seen from the air as it was camouflaged.

His plane carried “security material” into Afghanistan, he said. On one visit he landed fast in Kabul in the middle of the night, dropped off a handful of people and then took off again immediately.

Ireland was among the easier stops on Bill’s flights. “Shannon never questioned what I was doing or where I was going,” he said.

The Irish Department of Justice has said there is no evidence to suggest any aircraft used by the US military flying through Shannon carried detainees on CIA renditions, but said that it is recognised that some aircraft may have been involved “at various other times in activities relating to extraordinary renditions.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent