In a fast-moving story that's being followed by several news organizations (including reporters here at the Institute), the identities of three North Carolina pilots — all operating under aliases — linked to CIA "extraordinary rendition" flights have been discovered.

The new information, reported in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, comes at a time of growing outrage over the U.S. practice of whisking away terror suspects to countries with lax rules against torture. The discovery also comes in the wake of German authorities announcing that they are seeking three "ghost" pilots, in addition to 10 other CIA operatives, for arrest in the kidnapping and abuse of Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent.

The influential German investigative TV show Panorama has been hot on the story; if you read German, you can follow their latest report here.

An associate of the Institute for Southern Studies has also visited the homes of the pilots. Although the suspects quickly closed their doors and declined to comment when confronted about the rendition flights, we can corroborate the Times' story that these men match photographs of pilots based in Johnston County, North Carolina, where the CIA had been conducting renditions through Aero Contractors.

This is the company and place where Masri was flown to Macedonia and then Afghanistan for his infamous interrogation. All of the men, who live within a 30-minute drive of the secretive Aero hangar, insist they are "just pilots." But, among other evidence, phone records show calls from the pilots to their bosses and homes in North Carolina from resorts in Spain and other locations known to be on the routes of the "black renditions."

As the Los Angeles Times reveals, this new evidence could be a major asset not only to the German case but other international legal challenges to the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" policy:

Relying on the operatives' passport numbers, hotel records, credit card bills and aviation records, German prosecutors are seeking to properly identify the 13 Americans in a high-profile case that has upset relations between Washington and Berlin and caused a political scandal in Germany over whether government officials sanctioned the CIA operation.

Elsewhere in Europe, legal and parliamentary investigations have focused a harsh spotlight on the CIA's program to abduct suspected terrorists and ferry them to secret sites for interrogation, operations known variously as "black renditions" or "extraordinary renditions."

On Friday, an Italian judge issued arrest warrants for 26 suspected CIA operatives for allegedly abducting a radical Muslim cleric outside his mosque in Milan in February 2003 and delivering him to Egypt, where his lawyer says he was tortured. The trial is set for June 8 in Milan.

All the Americans charged, including the top two CIA officers in Italy at the time, have departed the country, but Italian law allows defendants to be tried in absentia.

None of the aliases used in Italy match those in the German case, although one of the pilots may have been involved in both incidents.

One former CIA operation officer who was involved in the Italian case at CIA headquarters, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case is classified, said he and his colleagues were increasingly nervous about traveling in Europe for fear of getting swept up in the investigations. He said he checked with a contact at the Italian intelligence service for reassurance that he would not be arrested.
 

The LA Times story gives more background on the three North Carolina suspects, as well as the Masri case. Read the whole piece here.

UPDATE: Those wanting more background should consult Stephen Grey's book, "Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program."