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 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. 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 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 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.
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, 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.
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 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 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 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.
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 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.”