WASHINGTON: The secret airlift of terrorism suspects and American intelligence officials to CIA-operated overseas prisons via luxury jets was mounted by a hidden network of US companies and coordinated by a prominent defense contractor, newly disclosed documents show.
More than 1,700 pages of court files in a business dispute between two aviation companies reveal how integral private contractors were in the government’s covert "extraordinary rendition" flights. They shuttled between Washington, foreign capitals, the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and, at times, landing points near once-secret, CIA-run overseas prisons.
The companies ranged from DynCorp, a leading government contractor that secretly oversaw the flights, to caterers that unwittingly stocked the planes with fruit platters and bottles of wine, the court files and testimony show.
A New York-based charter company, Richmor Aviation Inc., which supplied corporate jets and crews to the government, and a private aviation broker, SportsFlight Air, which organized flights for DynCorp, have been engaged in a four-year legal dispute. Both sides have cited the government’s program of forced transport of detainees in testimony, evidence and legal arguments. The companies are fighting over $874,000 awarded to Richmor by a New York state appeals court to cover unpaid costs for the secret flights.
The court files, which include contracts, flight invoices, cell phone logs and correspondence, paint a sweeping portrait of collusion between the government and the private contractors that did its bidding — some eagerly, some hesitantly. Other companies turned a blind eye to what was going on.
Trial testimony studiously avoided references to the CIA. When lawyers pressed a witness about flying terrorists from Washington or Europe to Guantanamo Bay, New York Supreme Court Judge Paul Czajka put on the brakes: "Does this have anything to do with the contract? I mean, it’s all very interesting, and I would love to hear about it, but does it have anything to do with how much money is owed?"
At another point, the name of a high-level CIA official was mentioned, but the official’s intelligence ties were not divulged.
Among the new disclosures:
DynCorp, which was reorganized and split up between another major contractor and a separate firm now known as DynCorp International, functioned as the primary contractor over the airlift. The company had not been previously linked to the secret flights.
Airport invoices and other commercial records provide a new paper trail for the movements of some high-value terrorism suspects who vanished into the CIA "black site" prisons, along with government operatives who rushed to the scenes of their capture. The records include flight itineraries closely coordinated with the arrest of accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and the suspected transport of other captives.
The private jets were furnished with State Department transit letters providing diplomatic cover for their flights. Former top State Department officials said similar arrangements aided other government-leased flights, but the documents in the court files may not be authentic since there are indications that the official who purportedly signed them was fictitious.
The private business jets shuttled among as many as 10 landings over a single mission, costing the government as much as $300,000 per flight.
According to invoices between 2002 and 2005, many of the flights carried US officials between Washington Dulles International Airport and the Guantanamo detention compound, where the US was housing a growing population of terror detainees. Other flights landed at a dizzying array of international airports.
Jets were dispatched to Islamabad; Rome; Djibouti; Frankfurt, Germany; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Shannon, Ireland; Glasgow, Scotland; Tenerife, Spain; Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt; and even Tripoli.
Some flights landed at airports near where CIA black sites operated: Kabul, Bangkok and Bucharest. Others touched down at foreign outposts where obliging security services reportedly took in US terror detainees for their own severe brand of persuasion: Cairo; Damascus, Syria; Amman, Jordan; and Rabat, Morocco. Billing records show scores of baggage handlers, ramp officials, van and car providers, satellite and flight phone firms, hotels and caterers routinely serviced the flights and crews and earned tens of thousands of dollars.
The court records do not specify who was aboard the planes beyond a count of crew and passengers. But in several cases, the flights dovetail with the arrests and transport of some of the most prominent accused terrorism suspects captured in the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: Mohamed, the purported mastermind, and Ramzi bin Alshib, his key logistics man; Abd Al-Nashiri, who allegedly planned the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole; and Hambali, an Indonesia terror leader tied to the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub. The detainees all vanished into the CIA’s now-shuttered "black site" prison network and all are now at Guantanamo awaiting military trials.
President George W. Bush acknowledged the existence of the prison network in 2006, and the CIA director in 2009, Leon Panetta, said the prisons were no longer in use. The intelligence agency has never acknowledged specific locations, but prisons overseen by US officials reportedly operated in Poland, Romania, Thailand, Lithuania and Afghanistan. Detainees have claimed in legal actions that they were flown, often hooded and shackled, to the prisons, where some were exposed to simulated drowning known as waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
The inner workings of the flight program have leaked previously. Aviation logs and other records were exposed by lawsuits and European parliamentary inquiries, and investigative accounts have traced patterns of some planes used in the flights. The Council of Europe estimated in 2007 that 1,245 CIA-operated flights passed over the continent, but an accurate count of actual rendition flights will probably never be known without a US government accounting.
But few court and corporate records have emerged describing the backstage role of private companies that aided in the secret flights. The international human rights group, Reprieve, which discovered the court case in New York, said the material provides "an unprecedented insight into the government’s outsourcing of torture."
On Thursday, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner faulted the US for "countless crimes," specifically citing the rendition flights and black sites as "systematic violations of human rights."
"Through rendition, the CIA captured individual suspects on foreign territories, often with the assistance of the local security services, and flew them to some specific third countries to be interrogated," said Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg. "This technique kept the suspects outside the reach of any justice system and rendered them vulnerable to ill-treatment."
In the court case, Richmor accused SportsFlight in 2007 of failing to pay more than $1.15 million for guaranteed flight hours that were unused after at least 55 missions flown by planes and crews chartered by DynCorp for government use. A state judge ruled for Richmor in January 2010, awarding the company $1.6 million. In May, an appeals court affirmed the decision, cutting the judgment to $874,000. Richmor contends it still has not been paid in full.
–Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Barry Schweid in Washington, Michael Hill in Albany, N.Y. and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.