The airplane is a Gulfstream V turbojet, the sort favored by CEOs and celebrities. But since 2001 it has been seen at military airports from Pakistan to Indonesia to Jordan, sometimes being boarded by hooded and handcuffed passengers.
The plane's owner of record, Premier Executive Transport Services Inc., lists directors and officers who appear to exist only on paper. And each one of those directors and officers has a recently issued Social Security number and an address consisting only of a post office box, according to an extensive search of state, federal and commercial records.
This Gulfstream V turbojet is believed to be used to transport suspected terrorists to other countries for interrogation -- a practice called rendition.
(Special To The Washington Post)
Bryan P. Dyess, Steven E. Kent, Timothy R. Sperling and Audrey M. Tailor are names without residential, work, telephone or corporate histories -- just the kind of "sterile identities," said current and former intelligence officials, that the CIA uses to conceal involvement in clandestine operations. In this case, the agency is flying captured terrorist suspects from one country to another for detention and interrogation.
The CIA calls this activity "rendition." Premier Executive's Gulfstream helps make it possible. According to civilian aircraft landing permits, the jet has permission to use U.S. military airfields worldwide.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, secret renditions have become a principal weapon in the CIA's arsenal against suspected al Qaeda terrorists, according to congressional testimony by CIA officials. But as the practice has grown, the agency has had significantly more difficulty keeping it secret.
According to airport officials, public documents and hobbyist plane spotters, the Gulfstream V, with tail number N379P, has been used to whisk detainees into or out of Jakarta, Indonesia; Pakistan; Egypt; and Sweden, usually at night, and has landed at well-known U.S. government refueling stops.
As the outlines of the rendition system have been revealed, criticism of the practice has grown. Human rights groups are working on legal challenges to renditions, said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, because one of their purposes is to transfer captives to countries that use harsh interrogation methods outlawed in the United States. That, he said, is prohibited by the U.N. Convention on Torture.
The CIA has the authority to carry out renditions under a presidential directive dating to the Clinton administration, which the Bush administration has reviewed and renewed. The CIA declined to comment for this article.
"Our policymakers would never confront the issue," said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who has been involved with renditions and supports the practice. "We would say, 'Where do you want us to take these people?' The mind-set of the bureaucracy was, 'Let someone else do the dirty work.' "
The story of the Gulfstream V offers a rare glimpse into the CIA's secret operations, a world that current and former CIA officers said should not have been so easy to document.
Not only have the plane's movements been tracked around the world, but the on-paper officers of Premier Executive Transport Services are also connected to a larger roster of false identities.
Each of the officers of Premier Executive is linked in public records to one of five post office box numbers in Arlington, Oakton, Chevy Chase and the District. A total of 325 names are registered to the five post office boxes.
An extensive database search of a sample of 44 of those names turned up none of the information that usually emerges in such a search: no previous addresses, no past or current telephone numbers, no business or corporate records. In addition, although most names were attached to dates of birth in the 1940s, '50s or '60s, all were given Social Security numbers between 1998 and 2003.
The Washington Post showed its research to the CIA, including a chart connecting Premier Executive's officers, the post office boxes, the 325 names, the recent Social Security numbers and an entity called Executive Support OFC. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.