From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Wed Aug 31 2011 - 16:37:37 EDT
N.Y. billing dispute reveals details of secret CIA rendition flights
Peter Finn and
Wednesday, August 31, 10:01 PM
On Aug. 12, 2003, a Gulfstream IV aircraft carrying six passengers took off
from Dulles International Airport and flew to Bangkok with fueling stops in
Cold Bay, Alaska, and Osaka, Japan.
Before it returned four days later, the plane also touched down in
Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Ireland. As these
unusual flights happened, U.S. officials took custody of an Indonesian
terrorist, Riduan Isamuddin, who had been captured in Thailand and would
spend the next three years being shuttled among secret prisons operated by
The Gulfstream IV's itinerary, as well as the $339,228.05 price tag for the
journey, are among the details about shadowy CIA flights that have emerged
in a small Upstate New York courthouse in a billing dispute between
contractors. The court documents offer a rare glimpse of the costs and
operations of a controversial program that President Obama shut down shortly
after taking office.
For all the secrecy that once surrounded the CIA's rendition program, a
significant part of its operation was entrusted to very small aviation
companies whose previous experience involved flying sports teams across the
The August 2003 flights - and dozens of others to locations such as
Bucharest, Baku, Cairo, Djibouti, Islamabad and Tripoli - were organized by
Sportsflight, a one-man aircraft brokerage business on Long Island. It then
secured a plane from Richmor Aviation, based near the Columbia County
Airport in Hudson, N.Y., which eventually sued Sportsflight for breach of
contract. In the process, the cost and itineraries of numerous CIA flights
became part of the court record.
In other cases, the government has invoked the "state secrets" privilege to
shut down litigation about the CIA program, but the case in Columbia County
proceeded uninterrupted in an almost empty courtroom. There were only two
witnesses at the bench trial, Richmor President Mahlon Richards and the
owner of Sportsflight, Donald Moss.
In a 2009 judgment, largely upheld on appeal earlier this year, Judge Paul
Czajka awarded Richmor more than $1 million.
"I kept waiting for [the government] to contact me. I kept thinking, isn't
someone going to come up here and talk to me?" said William F. Ryan, the
attorney for Richmor, which manages and books charter flights for aircraft
owned by others and operates from four small airports in New York and
Connecticut. "No one ever did."
Moss's attorney, Jeffrey Heller, also said he was never contacted by any
The more than 1,500 pages of material from the trial and appeals courts
files appear to include some sensitive material, such as logs of
air-to-ground phone calls made from the plane. These show multiple calls to
CIA headquarters, to the cell and home phones of a senior CIA official
involved in the rendition program, and to a government contractor, DynCorp,
based in Falls Church, that worked for the CIA.
Attorneys for the London-based legal charity Reprieve, which has been
investigating the CIA program, discovered the Columbia County case and
brought the court records to the attention of The Washington Post, the
Associated Press and a British newspaper, the Guardian.
"This new evidence tells a chilling story, from the CIA's efforts to
disguise its illegal activities to the price it paid to ferry prisoners to
torture chambers across the world," said Cori Crider, Reprieve's legal
director. "If we are to avoid repeating our mistakes, we must have a full
accounting of how this system was allowed to flourish under our very noses."
The CIA declined to discuss the case.
"The CIA does not, as a rule, comment on litigation, especially that to
which we are not a party," said Marie E. Harf, a spokeswoman for the agency.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the CIA's Rendition Group, a
division of the agency's CounterTerrorism Center, was tasked with finding
terrorism suspects, orchestrating their capture and transferring them for
interrogation to covert prison sites in allied countries.
The program was exposed by journalists, human rights activists and aviation
enthusiasts who examined public flight records, identified the tail numbers
of private planes suspected to be involved in rendition operations and then
continued to spot those planes.
The Richmor plane - tail number N85VM - was identified publicly in 2005
after it was used in the rendition of Abu Omar, a Muslim cleric who was
snatched off the streets of Milan and flown to Egypt. The company was
managing the plane for its owner, Philip Morse, vice chairman of Fenway
Sports Group, parent company of the Boston Red Sox.
Richmor changed the tail number of the Gulfstream and complained in a letter
to Sportsflight that it became the subject of "negative publicity, hate mail
and the loss of a management customer as a consequence of the association of
the N85VM with rendition flights." The letter also stated that Richmor crews
were not comfortable leaving the country, and that the owners "are afraid to
fly in their own aircraft."
The CIA captured and rendered at least 100 terrorism suspects to other
countries, including all of the high-value detainees currently held at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among them is Isamuddin, who is better known as
Hambali. He and the al-Qaeda-affiliated group he led are accused the 2002
night club bombing in Bali.
The CIA used a network of at least 26 private planes that were leased
through front companies and legitimate contractors. By 2007, the Council of
Europe was able to identify 1,245 flights operated by the CIA that had
passed through Europe; invoices in the Columbia County courthouse record
numerous stops in Britain and Ireland.
The contracts for these and other flights had remained classified. Over the
course of 36 months, between 2002 and 2005, the Richmor plane flew at least
1,258 hours for the agency, including routine flights to transfer personnel
to Guantanamo and other destinations, according to the court records.
The records include a contract stipulating that all flight crew must be
American-born citizens, not naturalized citizens or holders of green cards.
Richmor billed at a rate of $4,900 an hour for the use of the plane and
earned at least $6 million over three years, according to the invoices and
other court records. Richmor accounted for only a small percentage of the
CIA's business, according to publicly available records. That suggests that
the agency paid tens of millions of dollars to use private planes in the
aftermath the Sept. 11 attacks to transport detainees and its own personnel.
In early 2002, DynCorp hired Sportsflight on behalf of the U.S. government
to secure a plane with 10 seats and a range of nine hours for chartered
flights. Sportsflight, in turn, guaranteed Richmor 50 hours of flight time a
month, and it agreed to have a plane and crew on 12-hour standby.
Moss said he had an understanding with DynCorp that the company would not be
required to provide passenger manifests. "This was a highly unusual
situation," he said. "But I received the waivers."
At first, the sub-contractors thought they were working for the State
Department, which gave Richmor official letters saying it was providing
"global support to U.S. embassies worldwide." The letters also authorized
Richmor to deviate from stated flight plans.
One letter is dated March 1, 2003, the date of the capture of Khalid Sheik
Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. That
suggests that the Richmor plane was used to transport him out of Pakistan,
but there is no invoice for the relevant flight in the court record.
Ryan, Richmor's attorney, said the company president became aware of what
the planes were actually being used for shortly after the flights began.
"It was obvious," he said. "They flew to Guantanamo and Germany and the
Middle East with regularity."
Or, as Richards put it while on the stand: "We were transporting government
personnel and their invitees."
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