Blacklisted planes through Shannon should be searched: EU expert group

Covert CIA flights are in breach of international aviation regulations, says a new report. By Colin Murphy

Ireland should routinely search American civil aircraft landing at our airports and should investigate all landings of US aircraft in Ireland since 2001, according to new EU level report on CIA activities in Europe.

No "blanket" clearances should be given for landings or overflight to US aircraft, and the Government should request assurances from the US that it will not abuse international civil aviation regulations by using civil aircraft for CIA missions, the report, by the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights, recommends.

The report reviews the responsibilities of EU member states with regard to CIA activities in Europe, including rendition flights and the alleged existence of "black site" prisons holding suspects in the "war on terror".

It finds that the CIA's practice of using civil aircraft, either under charter from private companies or through "front" companies, violates international aviation regulations. The Chicago Convention on civil aviation obliges state aircraft to seek authorisation before landing or overflight in another state, and defines aircraft used in military and police services as being state aircraft. The EU experts' report says this applies to aircraft being used by the CIA.

The Irish Department of Transport has confirmed that US-registered civil aircraft which are known to be owned by CIA front companies, and to have been used in renditions, have landed in Ireland on "technical stops" without seeking authorisation. Civil aircraft are not obliged to seek authorisation prior to landing.

The report says: "a first step would be not to grant blanket or automatic overflight clearances to US aircraft declared as private flights

"Meanwhile, political pressure should be applied on the United States not to circumvent the Chicago Convention by allowing State agencies like the CIA to charter private aircraft."

The Irish Government has repeatedly said it accepts the assurances of the US government that no prisoners have been "rendered" through Ireland, and that there is no evidence to warrant aircraft being searched.

The US Department of State's chief legal advisor, John Bellinger, recently said it would be "inappropriate" for the Irish Government to search planes, and that this would "undermine cooperation" between the US and Europe. Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, he said the "vast bulk" of intelligence flights were transferring officials or "forensic information".

"What we really should do is say this is a sign that our countries are working together to fight terrorism.

"If the suggestion is that US intelligence cooperation or US intelligence flights are not welcome in Europe then I think that will undermine the cooperation that is very important amongst all of our countries to fight terrorists", he said.

The EU experts' report says it is "inadequate" to say there is no need to search US civil aircraft because of a lack of suspicion, "while at the same time issuing blanket permissions to these aircraft without closely looking at the flight route or specifications of the aircraft."

"If an airplane with a registration number on the 'black list' of aircraft, operated by a company known to be a front company for the CIA, with route Guantanamo Bay via, for example, Shannon, Ireland, or Ramstein, Germany (a US air base) to Mitiga, Libya asks (for) overflight clearance or landing permission for technical maintenance, then this should be enough suspicious information to justify a search of the aircraft."

The network of experts was appointed by the European Commission to oversee compliance with the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. Ireland's member of the network is Donncha O'Connell, a law lecturer in University College Galway. Also on the network are Martin Scheinin, the United Nations Special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, and Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture.