U.S.: N.Y. billing dispute reveals details of secret CIA rendition flights
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 CIA.
The Gulfstream IV's itinerary, as well as the
$339,228.05 price tag for the journey, are among the details of 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 the controversial rendition
For all the secrecy that once surrounded the CIA program, a
significant part of its operation was entrusted to very small aviation
companies whose previous experience involved flying sports teams across
The August 2003 flights - and dozens of others to
locations such as Bucharest, Romania; Baku, Azerbaijan; Cairo; Djibouti;
Islamabad, Pakistan; and Tripoli, Libya - were organized by
Sportsflight, a one-man aircraft brokerage business on Long Island. It
secured a plane from Richmor Aviation, based near the Columbia County
Airport in Hudson, N.Y. Richmor eventually sued Sportsflight for breach
of contract. In the process, the costs 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 over 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
Sportsflight owner Donald Moss.
In a 2009 judgment, largely upheld on appeal this year, Judge Paul Czajka awarded Richmor more than $1 million.
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 a handful of small
airports in New York, Connecticut and D.C. "No one ever did."
Moss's attorney, Jeffrey Heller, also said he was never contacted by any government official.
more than 1,500 pages from the trial and appeals court files appear to
include sensitive material, such as logs of air-to-ground phone calls
made from the plane. These logs 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, Falls Church-based
DynCorp, that worked for the CIA.
Attorneys for a 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."
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
spokeswoman Marie E. Harf.
Hunting terrorism suspects
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
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.
President Obama closed the CIA's secret interrogation program, but the administration continues to allow rendition in certain circumstances.
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, Phillip Morse,
vice chairman of Fenway Sports Group, parent company of the Boston Red
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
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 was Isamuddin, better
known as Hambali. He and the al-Qaeda-affiliated group he led are
accused in the 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia.
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, which advocates for human rights and democracy, was able to
identify 1,245 flights operated by the CIA that had passed through
Europe; invoices in the Columbia County courthouse show numerous stops
in Britain and Ireland.
The contracts for these and other flights
had remained classified. Over 36 months, between 2002 and 2005, the
Richmor plane flew at least 1,258 hours for the CIA, including routine
flights to transfer personnel to Guantanamo Bay and other destinations,
according to the court records.
The records include a contract
stipulating that all flight crew members must be American-born citizens,
not naturalized citizens or holders of green cards.
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 of the Sept. 11 attacks to transport detainees
and its own personnel.
'A highly unusual situation'
In early 2002, DynCorp hired Sportsflight on behalf of the
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
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
At first, the subcontractors 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.
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
Ryan, Richmor's attorney, said the company president
became aware of what the planes were being used for shortly after the
"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."