How US firms profited from torture flights
Court documents illustrate how US contracted out secret rendition transportation to a network of private companies
The scale of the CIA’s rendition programme has been laid bare in court documents that illustrate in minute detail how the US contracted out the secret transportation of suspects to a network of private American companies.
The manner in which American firms flew terrorism suspects to locations around the world, where they were often tortured, has emerged after one of the companies sued another in a dispute over fees. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the mass of invoices, receipts, contracts and email correspondence – submitted as evidence to a court in upstate New York – provides a unique glimpse into a world in which the “war on terror” became just another charter opportunity for American businesses.
As a result of the case, the identities of some of the corporations involved in the rendition programme have been disclosed for the first time, along with the names of some of the executives who knew the purpose of the flights.
One unintended consequence may be that some of those corporations and individuals are now at risk of being sued in proceedings brought on behalf of the al-Qaida and Taliban suspects who were the victims of the programme.
The New York case concerns Sportsflight, an aircraft broker, and Richmor, an aircraft operator. Sportsflight entered into an arrangement to make a Gulfstream IV executive jet available at $4,900 an hour rather than the market rate of $5,450. A crew was available to fly at 12 hours’ notice. The government wanted “the cheapest aircraft to fulfil a mission”, Sportsflight’s owner, Don Moss, told the court. But it was the early days of the rendition programme, and business was booming: the court heard that Sportsflight told Richmor: “The client says we’re going to be very, very busy.”
Invoices submitted to the court as evidence tally with flights suspected of ferrying around individuals who were captured and delivered into the CIA’s network of secret jails around the world. Some of the invoices present in stark detail the expense claims that crew members were submitting on their secret journeys, down to £3 biscuits and £30 bottles of wine.
One Gulfstream jet has been identified as the aircraft that rendered an Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar after CIA agents kidnapped him in broad daylight in Milan in February 2003 and took him to Cairo, where he says he was tortured.
Another invoice, for $301,113 relating to a series of flights over eight days that took the Gulfstream jet on an odyssey through Alaska, Japan, Thailand, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, tallies with the rendition of Encep Nuraman, the leader of the Indonesian terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah, better known as Hambali.
Other invoices follow flights that appear to have been involved in the rendition of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man said to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks. After being captured in 2003, Mohammed disappeared into the CIA’s secret prisons, where he was waterboarded 183 times in just one month, according to a US justice department memo. The invoices also show the aircraft flying in and out of Bucharest, where one of the CIA’s secret prisons is now known to have been located. On one occasion, the court heard, the jet flew direct from a European airport to Guantánamo. The court heard that in October 2004 the aircraft’s tail number was changed, to N227SV, after the US government discovered that its movements were being tracked. The following March the aircraft was publicly linked to the Abu Omar rendition.
The documents were discovered by staff at the legal charity Reprieve. Its legal director, Cori Crider, said: “These documents reveal how the CIA’s secret network of torture sites was able to operate unchecked for so many years. They also reveal what a farce it was that the CIA managed to get the prisoners’ torture claims kicked out as secret, while all of the details of its sinister business were hiding in plain sight.”
Richmor was providing the aircraft for DynCorp, a private military company, which was acting on behalf of the CIA. The bills for the operation passed through Sportsflight and a second aircraft broker, Capital Aviation. Portions of DynCorp were sold by its parent company in 2005. The entity that was sold became known as DynCorp International.
The aircraft’s ultimate owner was Phillip Morse, an American businessman with substantial sporting interests who was subsequently appointed vice-chairman of Fenway Sports Group, the company that owns Liverpool FC. In between rendition flights the aircraft was used to fly the Boston Red Sox baseball team.
The court documents make only passing reference to the human cargo being transported. Enough details of the rendition programme generally have now been disclosed to know that men on these flights were usually sedated through anal suppositories before being dressed in nappies and orange boiler suits, then hooded and muffled and trussed up in the back of the aircraft. The precise conditions in which suspects were transported on Richmor flights are not known.
Richmor’s president, Mahlon Richards, told the court that the aircraft carried “government personnel and their invitees” (pdf). “Invitees?” queried the judge, Paul Czajka. “Invitees,” confirmed Richards. They were being flown across the world because the US government believed them to be “bad guys”, he said. Richmor performed well, Richards added. “We were complimented all the time.” “By the invitees?” asked the judge. “Not the invitees, the government.”