Prestwick Airport’s reliance on US military lends rendition questions fresh impetus – Martyn McLaughlin

In an unpredictable year, there is something comfortingly familiar in the news that the UK government has refused to help Scottish authorities investigate the alleged use of Scottish airports in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme.

The state-owned Prestwick airport has grown increasingly reliant on US military spending in recent years. (Picture: John Devlin)
The state-owned Prestwick airport has grown increasingly reliant on US military spending in recent years. (Picture: John Devlin)

The smokescreen surrounding an unredacted US Senate report into the CIA’s alleged torture of terror suspects – and the use of international hubs to facilitate it – grows more impenetrable by the year.

With Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, refusing to assist Police Scotland’s investigation by providing access to the full report, that is not going to change any time soon. But it should not end scrutiny of the matter.

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Nicola Sturgeon accused of 'ignoring' Prestwick US military scandal

If you are under the impression that this is a historic issue which ceased to be relevant come the end of the George W Bush administration, congratulations on holding on to a degree of optimism in the year that is 2020.

Scottish airports, ideally positioned on the so-called Great Circle Route spanning North America and the Middle East, have been strategically significant to the US Armed Forces since the 1930s, and that has not suddenly changed.

US military flights on the increase

Indeed, if anything, Scottish hubs appear to have become even more important to the world’s largest military of late. Thanks to refuelling records we know that Glasgow Prestwick Airport – one of the key hubs at the centre of the rendition flight allegations – has become one of the key stopover points for US military flights in recent years.

US military flights through Prestwick Airport have increased under President Donald Trump (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

In fact, since the struggling hub was taken into public ownership by the Scottish Government, its primary revenue stream has been the Defense Logistics Agency, a Virginia-based body which manages the global supply chain for the US Army, Navy, and Air Force.

In the past five years, Prestwick has benefited from a significant upsurge in this US military custom. While there were just 95 refuelling stops made at the hub in 2015, the figure rose to 145 the following year. By the time Mr Trump was installed in the White House, the number rose to 180 in 2017, before jumping in 257 in 2018. The latest information, provided by the US Air Force, shows that in the first eight months of last year, a new record of 259 stops had been made.

There is nothing to indicate that this trend has been interrupted. Indeed, contacts in Ayrshire have suggested to me that the influx of US military flights is one of the few areas of Prestwick’s beleaguered business strategy that has been unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is what Michael Matheson referred to in Holyrood earlier this month as “strong performance across its niche areas of the aviation market”. It is for others to judge the transport secretary’s talents, but no one can dispute that his gift for euphemisms is unrivalled.

That may be positive news for Transport Scotland and the management team at Prestwick tasked with returning the airport to the private sector, but it cannot help but raise questions about the nature of the flights passing through Prestwick.

Trump: ‘Torture works’

If there were widespread concerns about the foreign policies of the Bush administration, they appear trifling compared to how the US has regressed under Mr Trump’s watch. This is a president who has bluntly announced that “torture works” and advocated both a return to harsh interrogation techniques, and the use of so-called CIA "black sites”.

A bipartisan consensus in the US Senate prevented him from acting on his worst instincts, but the question of where the flights passing through Prestwick are headed, and the nature of their business, is surely as timely now as it was in the early 2000s.

The truth is that we simply don’t know, in large part thanks to the domestic chaos sown by Mr Trump, which has overshadowed what his administration has been up to further afield.

It is only two years since Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report indicating Prestwick was used on multiple occasions for refuelling American planes taking detainees to the US.

Iain Livingstone, now chief constable of Police Scotland, also told the committee how his officers were blocked from boarding a US flight in order to check whether it was carrying detainees.

"The guidance was that 'we can have the individuals on the aircraft come off and meet you on the tarmac, however you cannot come on board the aircraft,'" Mr Livingstone said. Instead, police had to watch "at a distance" while the Border Force met the US party, "taking them at their word that there was no one left on board their aircraft”.

See no evil, hear no evil

That the Foreign Office has stonewalled Humza Yousaf’s request to obtain the full Senate report is hardly surprising. It has been consistently unwilling to bring the sustained controversy to an end, despite – or perhaps because of – the ISC report noting dozens of examples of British officers witnessing or hearing about mistreatment. Its latest refusal to engage with the scandal is a reminder of the UK’s place in the so-called special relationship with the US.

What is disappointing, however, is that the Scottish Government has not been more vocal about the issue. Yes, its own investigatory efforts have been hamstrung by the fact that civil aviation and foreign affairs are both reserved matters. Even so, its approach to what has been going in at Prestwick has been one of ‘see no evil, hear no evil’.

Since taking Prestwick into public ownership, that position has become even more entrenched. The government maintains the airport is being operated as a commercial business at arm's length, but if that is the case, do ministers have any real oversight over its increasing dependence on the Pentagon’s dollar?

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