CIA rendition flights exposed in mundane billing lawsuit

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

The CIA's super-secret rendition program--to whisk terrorist suspects in the dark of night to CIA black sites for interrogation--has been further exposed to the light of day in rather humble fashion: a billing dispute in upstate New York.

The flight logs for a Gulfstream IV plane hired by a one-man Long Island firm are among the 1,700 pages of documentation in court records filed in conjunction with a 2007 breach-of-contract suit filed in Columbia County, New York. The records show, among other things, a curious itinerary for the plane over a four-day period in August 2003--northern Virginia's Dulles airport, Bangkok, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Tripoli, Ireland.

As the Washington Post's Peter Finn and Julie Tate report Wednesday: "The Gulfstream IV's itinerary, as well as the $339,228.05 price tag for the journey, are among the details about shadowy CIA flights that have emerged in a small Upstate New York courthouse in a billing dispute between contractors."

The two contractors involved in the litigation are Richmor Aviation, a Hudson, NY-based aviation services firm which leases out private aircraft and flight crews; and Sportsflight, based in Long Island, NY, which hired Richmor to conduct dozens of flights between 2002 and 2007. Richmor, in turn, was reportedly hired by defense contractor DynCorp, working at the behest of the CIA, the Associated Press reports.

Under the arrangement, one Richmor Gulfstream with the tail number N85VM "was identified publicly in 2005 after it was used in the rendition of Abu Omar," a Milan cleric kidnapped by the CIA and sent to Egypt in 2002, the Post report explains, leading to "negative publicity, hate mail and the loss of a management customer as a consequence," the company charged in a complaint. (You can see the tracking of other aircraft that may have been employed in the CIA rendition program here.)

In addition, "Richmor accused SportsFlight in 2007 of failing to pay more than $1.15 million for at least 55 missions flown by planes and crews chartered by DynCorp for government use," the AP writes.

So Richmor did what any company might do in the midst of a bitter billing dispute:  It sued Sportsflight. And to the surprise of some of the lawyers involved in the case, no men in trench coats appeared to shut the trial down.

"I kept waiting for [the government] to contact me," an attorney for Richmor, William F. Ryan, told the Post's Finn and Tate. "I kept thinking, isn't someone going to come up here and talk to me?"  But no one ever did.

And while the CIA hasn't sought to stymie the suit, the spy agency's fingerprints are pretty hard to miss in the paper trail. Among the hundreds of pages of documents filed at the courthouse during the litigation process are "logs of air-to-ground phone calls made from the plane ... [showing] 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, DynCorp ... that worked for the CIA," the Post's report continues.

Richmor won the initial judgment in Jan. 2010, and this past spring, "an appeals court affirmed the decision, cutting the judgment to $874,000," the AP reports.

Not surprisingly, CIA officials declined to comment for the story. "The CIA does not, as a rule, comment on litigation, especially that to which we are not a party," CIA spokeswoman Marie E. Harf told the paper.

As for the GulfStream's breakneck Dulles-Bangkok-Afghanistan-Sri Lanka-United Arab Emirates-Triploi-Ireland itinerary in August 2003? It coincided, the Post reports, with the U.S. apprehension of an Indonesian terrorism suspect, Riduan Isamuddin, who was detained in Thailand, and who spent the next three years in the CIA's secret black-site prison system. Isamuddin met in Malaysia with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaz al-Hazmi, shortly before their arrival in California in January 2000.