The release of the US Senate Intelligence Committe report on torture has renewed focus on the use of airports and air bases, with certain other countries facing awkward questions about exactly what role they played in the US's War on Terror
Geopolitics manifests itself in a wide variety of sites and spaces, and for much of the last decade the airport has been at the forefront of the war on terror. With heightened fears regarding global terrorism, the airport has been subjected to ever more intensified security and surveillance arrangements. Our bodies, our luggage, our passports and our behaviour are carefully monitored, and some bodies and passports have borne the brunt of this securitisation. We are not all in it together – as a white professional man with a British passport, I have had an easier time of it than others.
The US Senate intelligence committee report on torture reminds us that airports and airbases have been crucial to the war on terror. Mindful of constitutional and legal limitations, the practice of extraordinary rendition was established to enable suspects to be flown around the world, questioned and even tortured if suspected of withholding information judged essential to US security.
The movement of terror suspects depended on a complex assemblage of things. Planes were hired, permissions were sought, paperwork was completed, sites identified and allies enrolled in a network of rendition sites spanning the globe. Airports were critical to all of this. The distances involved were substantial, ranging from the United States to Europe, Central Asia and even the British overseas territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. For reasons of logistics, having a network of airports and having ‘reliable allies’ mattered because the US authorities did not want public attention being drawn to these flights. Some airports, such as Shannon on the west coast of Ireland, were geographically convenient, even if Ireland was not a NATO member or close ally in the war on terror like the UK.
Built in the early 1940s, Shannon was strategically significant as a stopping off point for transatlantic flights. It was a gateway airport, the world’s first duty free airport, and many commercial airlines took advantage of its long runway and location on the edge of Europe. As a non-NATO member, Shannon also hosted re-fuelling stops by airlines emanating from the Soviet Union.
Although the Senate report does not name any countries or airports involved in rendition flights and refuelling stops, it was interesting to see the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs deny that Shannon airport was implicated in this transportation regime. Other sources, however, are less sanguine. The Open Society Foundation claimed that 54 countries, including Ireland and the UK, were implicated in the rendition programme. Even if the Irish government claimed it had no knowledge of such flights in and out of Shannon airport, the suspicion remains that US military flights were not being checked or searched in the period from 2002 onwards.
Academics associated with The Rendition Project (therenditionproject.org) allege that Shannon airport was crucial to the trafficking of terror suspects. Stopovers, they claim, even if no prisoners were on board those flights, were enabled by the usage of Shannon.
The Senate report will once again re-open some painful questions for many governments and not just the Irish. How did the Irish government check that rendition flights coming in and out of Shannon were not carrying rendition prisoners? Did the US government ever inform the Irish government about the role and nature of the rendition flights? Did the Irish government ever follow up with the US government following reports from multiple sources including the European Parliament about the role of European airports in facilitating rendition flights?
Next time you listen to Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me, spare a thought for those who had no choice in the matter.
This story was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine