A Spy Inc. no stranger to controversy

LONDON / WASHINGTON — Even within the secretive world of private military companies, AirScan is noted for being unforthcoming about its operations. The Florida-based company has repeatedly refused to disclose what work it is doing in Europe, choosing instead to discuss the company's plans to track polar bears hibernating in the Arctic.

“We work closely with the U.S. government,” explained a company spokesman on Tuesday, when approached for comment on their operations in the Balkans. “We couldn’t answer any questions without their permission.” Earlier, Walter Holloway, AirScan’s founder and president, when asked what work the company did in Europe, responded: “Europe? Who told you we were in Europe?”

When questioned on the contracts the U.S. government holds with private military companies like AirScan, officials retreat behind a wall of silence, claiming that any information is proprietary and they can not disclose anything without the permission of the companies.

It is all the more ironic, then, that live feeds from AirScan’s spy flights have been turned into international television broadcasts, freely available to the general public.

What is known about AirScan is that it was formed in 1984 by former U.S. air commandos, the Air Force version of Special Forces. Its first and longest lasting contract has been to provide airborne surveillance security for U.S. Air Force launches at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. AirScan also has contracts in the war zones of Colombia and Angola, where it guards oil pipelines for U.S. companies, and is part of the U.S. anti-drug operation, Plan Colombia.

Most recently, three AirScan pilots were sought for questioning by the Colombian attorney-general for their role in providing intelligence to the Colombians before the Colombian air force bombed the village of Santa Domingo on December 13, 1998, killing 18 people, including seven children.

The Los Angeles Times reported on March 17, 2002, that “Air Scan…helped plan and provided surveillance for the attack around Santa Domingo using a high tech monitoring plane.”

AirScan officials denied involvement in the incident, saying their plane was only used to survey Occidental Petroleum’s pipeline. The Colombian attorney general was unable to question the three AirScan employees. AirScan claims they do not know the whereabouts of the men and the investigation has broken down because of infighting between civilian prosecutors and the military.

By 1993, the company was active in Angola, providing aerial surveillance operations to oil companies. AirScan’s mission is to patrol oil pipelines and installations to detect and counter guerilla activity by the secessionist Front for the Liberation of Cabinda (FLEC) and by UNITA forces.

AirScan’s commander in Angola was U.S. Brigadier General Joe Stringham, a decorated Special Forces veteran who commanded U.S. military advisors engaged in the unacknowledged war in El Salvador.

According to company statements, “AirScan has conducted numerous day/night airborne surveillance/security missions over mountainous/jungle terrain and ocean areas to protect personnel, environmental resources, overseas high-value oil field production facilities, pipelines and pumping stations. Missions consist of airborne data and intelligence gathering and interface with security and maritime security personnel and ground security. AirScan has ongoing multi-year contracts for these services with Occidental of Colombia, ECOPETROL (National Oil Company of Colombia), Cabinda Gulf Oil Company (Angola), and SONANGOL (National Oil Company of Angola).” Chevron owns 40 percent of Cabinda Gulf Oil.

Corporate records filed in Florida show that Holloway, the president, and John Mansur, the CEO, also started a second venture, Angola Africa International Inc., which Holloway also refused to comment on.

One of AirScan’s fleet of Cessna 337s was lost in undisclosed circumstances in Angola in July 2001, while conducting a nighttime surveillance mission in the Cabinda enclave. The company admitted the loss of the aircraft to the Voice of America. Two U.S. trained Angolan employees were missing and presumed killed.

The Angolan loss followed another controversial incident in Peru in May 2001, when a plane carrying U.S. missionaries was targeted and shot down by the Peruvian Air Force. The passenger plane had been targeted as suspicious by spotters on board another U.S. surveillance aircraft run by another private military company, the Alabama-based Aviation Development Corporation, which went out of business six months after the incident. Press reports at the time suggested that AirScan and ADC collaborated to keep watch on the Cano Limon oil pipeline and to seek out coca crops for destruction.

The company says of its current work that AirScan “has greatly expanded its capabilities to perform a wide range of airborne surveillance missions. We are currently conducting surveillance and remote sensing missions in Africa, Europe, and throughout the United States in support of diverse governmental and private projects.”

Despite proclaiming professionalism and great pride “in its flexibility and dedication to accomplish the most demanding tasks”, aspects of AirScan’s operations seen by communications monitors have appeared less than entirely professional. On the satellite transmissions, the AirScan crews frequently wave at their cameras or display the company mascot (a pink pig).

In its Florida operations, AirScan aircraft use “Bat” call signs for their radio messages, while the company base identifies itself as the “Batcave.”

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