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Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006 06:38 am

Plane truth

Scott-based Air Mobility Command contracts with private air-cargo companies to ship munitions

There is an unwavering sense of patriotism in southwest Illinois: Flags are displayed proudly at homes and businesses. Signs supporting the troops show up behind the ice-cream counter at Dr. Jazz’s in Lebanon, outside the convenience store in Shiloh, and on front lawns throughout St. Clair County.

Part of this fervor can be explained by the influence of nearby Scott Air Force Base, where approximately 5,800 active-duty military personnel are stationed. Thousands more reserve and Air National Guard personnel are also based here. The impact on the local economy, estimated at more than $1.6 billion, supports nearly 7,000 more jobs.

Scott is the home of the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command of the 375th Airlift Wing, whose purpose is to move troops and supplies worldwide. Area residents may support Scott’s operations, but not everybody in the world is as enthralled with the AMC’s mission.

On three successive nights in early August, the Trident Ploughshares, an anti-war group, raided Prestwick Airport, in Glasgow, Scotland. After breaching security fences with wire-cutters, the activists observed AMC transport planes on the tarmac and in a nearby service hangar. In two instances, they brazenly boarded the military aircraft, rummaging through their interiors before being arrested.

The activists suspected the Americans of using the airport as part of an operation to resupply Israel with munitions for use in its invasion of Lebanon. They did not find the evidence they sought, but news of their arrests stirred a controversy in the United Kingdom. The ensuing debate over airport security, among other issues, overshadowed what the protestors had discovered.

At Prestwick, the civilian inspectors, as they call themselves, saw Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo planes mixed in with the military aircraft. Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, of Purchase, N.Y., owns the two commercial transporters. Both are registered as private businesses, offering a wide range of services to civilian customers.

Both companies are also part of the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, a U.S. Department of Defense program administered by the AMC at Scott. Frequent use of Prestwick by CRAF carriers is one reason the scofflaws gave for their acts of civil disobedience.

Roz Bullen, one of those arrested at Prestwick, says that the Trident Ploughshares protesters knew about the private companies because other activists, so-called plane-spotters, at Shannon Airport, in Shannon, Ireland, have been monitoring their comings and goings. “We were looking out for those kinds of planes. It was . . . the same scenario,” Bullen says. “Planes land, refuel, and take off.”

Despite the clamor of anti-war protesters, few details concerning these Air Force-sponsored flights have been publicized in the United States.

When asked directly, a spokesperson for the AMC at Scott refused to divulge whether CRAF planes specifically carry weapons, preferring instead to generically refer to all cargoes as Defense Department “freight.”

An Atlas Air spokesperson declined to comment, saying only, “As a matter of corporate policy, we do not publicly comment on our customers, their cargo, routes, or schedules.”

There is no doubt, however, that CRAF planes are hauling weapons. In a recent letter obtained by Illinois Times through the office of Irish Sen. David Norris, Irish Minister for Transport Martin Cullen cited five instances in which Polar Air Cargo flights had been granted exemptions by the government to fly weapons or munitions through Irish airspace.

In September, the Defense Department allocated another $2.3 billion to the CRAF program for the next fiscal year. Teams of civilian airlines bid on these lucrative military contracts. This year, as in the past, Atlas and Polar teamed up with Memphis-based FedEx, which scored a contract valued at between $185 million and $1 billion — nearly half of CRAF’s current budget.

Bill Ramsey, of the St. Louis-based Instead of War coalition, says that the CRAF is part of a larger effort by the Pentagon to subcontract out work that was originally done by the military.

“This can lead to all sorts of uses of public money for private profit that I don’t think most people think of when they’re paying their taxes to pay the Pentagon’s bills,” Ramsey says. “Now that they’re privatizing it’s harder for people to scrutinize what’s going on. We’ve seen this over and over again. It may be something the Defense Department has learned from the CIA because the CIA has used private contractors going back at least to Air America during the Vietnam era.”

The Pentagon implemented the CRAF program in 1991, during the first Gulf War, but, as Ramsey points out, the military-intelligence establishment started employing commercial airlines several decades ago, a habit that has had the side effect of blurring distinctions among civilian aviation, military operations, and covert actions.

Polar Air, one of the cargo services targeted by the Prestwick protests, is representative of that ambiguity. When the company initiated service in 1993, it was affiliated with Southern Air Transport, the CIA-tied airline involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. A CIA report belatedly released in 1998 acknowledges that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency suspected Southern Air of engaging in cocaine trafficking and money laundering during the Iran-Contra era.

In the mid-1980s, Congress outlawed military aid to the Contras, a coalition then fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. To circumvent the congressional sanctions and further its anti-communist crusade in Central America, a cabal within the Reagan-Bush administration — spearheaded by then-National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver North — created a clandestine support network. The plan involved selling arms to Iran, ostensibly to gain the release of American hostages, and then funneling some of the profits to support the Contras. Southern Air served both ends of the “enterprise,” as it was called, and both ends contravened U.S. foreign policies and laws.

Disclosure of the arms deals crippled the second term of the Reagan presidency and spurred a presidential commission, congressional hearings and the naming of a special prosecutor. The latter investigation eventually resulted in 11 guilty pleas or convictions for some midlevel conspirators. A federal appeals court overturned North’s conviction on a technicality. Presidential pardons spared others, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Some of those who evaded responsibility then, including John Negroponte and Richard Armitage, have resurfaced in the current U.S. administration.

In the end, no one at Southern Air Transport was ever held accountable. In 1995, one year after it severed its ties to Polar Air, Southern Air moved its operations from Miami to Columbus, Ohio, receiving hefty state and local government tax breaks to do so. A few years later, the company filed for bankruptcy. Before he died, Southern Air’s owner, a former CIA lawyer, reorganized the company, shifting tens of millions of dollars from a company subsidiary into his wife’s personal brokerage account.

The revamped corporate headquarters of Southern Air Transport in Columbus closed. But Polar Air, Southern Air’s direct descendant, still serves the same airport and other more war-ravaged destinations that the U.S. Air Force prefers not to talk about.

C.D. Stelzer is a freelance writer in St. Louis. This story is adapted from a longer version that appears in the current edition of Island, an Irish magazine.

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