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RenditionLeaks: How the US Contracted Rendition Flights to Private Companies

(photo: Wee in YYC)

Around 1,700 pages on the US government’s use of private contractors for rendition flights have been disclosed in a case involving a business dispute between Richmor Aviation Inc. and SportsFlight Air. As AP reports, the documents “shed new light on the U.S. government’s reliance on private contractors for flights between Washington, foreign capitals, the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and, at times, landing points near once-secret, CIA-run overseas prisons.”

The dispute is “over $874,000 awared to Richmor by a New York state appeals court to cover unpaid costs for the secret flights.” The court files disclosed in the dispute include “contracts, flight invoices, cell phone logs and correspondence,” which call attention to “the collusion between the government and the private contractors” that did the government’s bidding.

The UK-based legal action charity Reprieve played a key role in having the “1500 operational and legal documents” that were part of the business dispute disclosed. The charity notes the world now gets a “comprehensive overview of how the CIA’s unlawful program of ‘extraordinary renditions’—otherwise known as kidnapping—was structured and managed.”

What the documents show, according to Reprieve, is the following:

  • A complicated billing chain obscured the ultimate end user of the flights — the CIA
  • The US government used the same aircraft – tail number N85VM, owned by Liverpool FC owner Philip Morse — for over 55 flights to Guantanamo Bay, Kabul, Bangkok, Dubai, Islamabad, Cairo, Baghdad, Djibouti, Rabat, Frankfurt, Ramstein, Rome, Tenerife, the Azores and Bucharest
  • The plane, a Gulfstream jet, frequently passed through British and Irish airports en route, including Shannon, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London Luton
  • Richmor executives used disturbing newspeak to describe the prisoners – in Richmor’s phrase, the ‘invitees’ – they were shuttling to torture sites
  • All rendition flights were covered by a “letter of convenience” from the State Department
  • The CIA continued to pay millions to cover its its tracks, well after its illegal rendition-to-torture programme was made public

The legal director for Reprieve, Cori Crider, makes a salient point in reaction to the dispute that has now led to the disclosure of these documents: “When you see all these details, litigated for years in the open, the question that comes to mind is: why were Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, and all the other rendition victims denied their day in court? This case proves, once and for all, that the reason the government blocked the rendition cases was not to protect sensitive material. It was to avoid embarrassment.”

Crider told The Guardian:

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.”

The Virginia-based private military company, DynCorp, perhaps not surprisingly, is at the center of this scandal. DynCorp, which merged with the technology company Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to become DynCorp/CSC, helped to arrange the flights. The government, as Reprieve reports, “paid a reduced hourly rate for exclusive rights to the service’s of Richmor’s N85VM, initially over a six-month period between June and November 2002.” SportsFlight Air helped to organize the flights for DynCorp.

Clare Algar, executive director of Reprieve, explains up to now it has been known based on “everyone from plane spotters to the European parliament” where CIA rendition flights were happening. There had been details on flights that were suspicious. But, the public has never had access to information on how the rendition program was being operated.

“Richmor Aviation offered the N85VM, on the understanding that it should be in the air at any time given 12 hours’ notice,” Algar reports. “Over the next three years, this plane flew at least 55 missions for the US government, often to Guantánamo Bay, as well as to numerous destinations worldwide.”

The destinations include:

Kabul, where the CIA ran the notorious “Salt Pit” prison; Bangkok, where Abu Zubaydah was first taken and used as a guinea pig for “enhanced interrogation techniques”; Rabat, where prisoners were kept incommunicado and tortured by Moroccan agents who passed information to the US and Britain; and Bucharest, one of the European secret jail sites

Through airport invoices, one is able to learn how high-value terror suspects were moved to CIA “black site” prisons, sometimes with “government operatives who rushed to the scenes of their capture.” The diclosure also contains damning evidence that shines a light on how the State Department provided “diplomatic cover” for the rendition flights. AP reports, “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.”

It is not surprising that State Department officials would engage in this activity. After all, WikiLeaks helped reveal how they were involved in spying on UN officials, along with numerous other instances of blackmail and coercion. That the State Department would be a willing accomplice to CIA crimes against humanity is not all that stunning; nonetheless, it is inexcusable.

What’s interesting is how a capitalist dispute has led to the disclosure of key details on a CIA rendition program that used to be secret. One wonders what officials would like to say to raise hysteria about how US national security is at risk. Based on how US officials have relentlessly scolded WikiLeaks for releasing previously classified or secret information, perhaps the government should find some way to make the businessmen in these companies pay.

That’s not to diminish the details on rendition that have been revealed here. In a society that adhered to the rule of law and upheld human rights, one would think the contractors and government officials involved in this would face punishment.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."