A branch of the U.S. Navy secretly contracted a 33-plane fleet that
included two Gulfstream jets reportedly used to fly terror suspects to countries
known to practice torture, according to documents obtained by The Associated
At least 10 U.S. aviation companies were issued classified contracts
in 2001 and 2002 by the obscure Navy Engineering Logistics Office for the "occasional
airlift of USN (Navy) cargo worldwide," according to Defense Department
documents the AP obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Two of the companies — Richmor Aviation Inc. and Premier Executive
Transport Services Inc. — chartered luxury Gulfstreams that flew terror
suspects captured in Europe to Egypt, according to U.S. and European media reports.
Once there, the men told family members, they were tortured. Authorities in
Italy and Sweden have expressed outrage over flights they say were illegal and
orchestrated by the U.S. government.
While the Gulfstreams came under scrutiny in 2001, what hasn't been disclosed
is the Navy's role in contracting planes involved in operations the CIA terms
"rendition" and what Italian prosecutors call kidnapping.
"A lot of us have been focusing on the role of the CIA but also suspecting
that certain parts of the armed forces are involved," said Margaret Satterthwaite,
a New York University School of Law researcher who has investigated renditions.
The Navy contracts involve more planes than previously reported — other
news outlets totaled 26 planes; the AP identified 33 planes.
Italian judges have issued arrest warrants for 19 purported CIA operatives
who allegedly snatched a Muslim cleric from Milan in 2003 and flew him to Cairo,
according to FAA records cited by the Chicago Tribune, aboard Richmor's Gulfstream
IV. The jet belongs to a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, who told The Boston
Globe that the team's logo was covered when the CIA leased the plane. Another
case involves two men taken from Sweden to Egypt in 2001 aboard Premier's Gulfstream
Neither the CIA nor a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon would comment for this
story. Officials at the Navy Engineering Logistics Office, or NELO, in Arlington,
Va., didn't respond to messages requesting comment.
Joseph P. Duenas, counsel for the logistics office, declined to provide the
contracts, saying they "involve national security information that is classified."
The secrecy surrounding the deals makes it unclear why NELO issued them, but
one reason may be the office's anonymity — the agency is so buried within
the Pentagon bureaucracy that some career Navy officials have never heard of
John Hutson, a retired rear admiral who was the Navy's Judge Advocate General
from 1997 to 2000 and is critical of the Bush administration's detainee policies,
said he was not familiar with NELO. Told of its activities, Hutson said NELO
employees could be held liable if they knew the planes would be used for renditions.
Human rights lawyers allege rendition flights violate criminal law.
The office has been around since the mid-1970s, according to a former employee
who spoke on condition of anonymity because NELO's activities are secret. NELO
operates under different names: it's also known as the Navy's Office of Special
Projects and its San Diego location is called the Navy Regional Plant Equipment
None of those names is listed in the U.S. Government Manual, the official compilation
of federal departments, agencies and offices. A man who answered the phone at
NELO's Arlington office refused to give his name or the agency's address, suggesting
it may be classified.
In court documents filed in the case of a fired Office of Special Projects
whistleblower, government attorneys described the agency's principal function
as "the conduct of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activities."
The AP learned of the airplane contracts through a Freedom of Information Act
request that focused on a different subject — permits granted to all 10
aviation companies that let them land at any Navy base worldwide.
The permits list planes operated by the companies and a contract number issued
by NELO. The numbers provide some details about the contracts, including when
they were issued, but do not say when they expire. In the documents the AP reviewed,
contracts were issued in 2001 and 2002 and were cited on landing permits issued
in 2004. The NELO contract numbers also appear on permits issued in 2003 and
2004 that allowed seven of the companies to buy fuel at military bases worldwide.
The permits list 31 planes under NELO contract other than the two Gulfstreams.
They include a small Cessna; three huge Lockheed Hercules cargo planes; a Gulfstream
1159a; a Lear Jet 35A; a DC-3; two Boeing 737s; and a 53-passenger DeHavilland
DH-8 photographed by plane spotters in Afghanistan.
Ownership of the planes is shielded behind a maze of paperwork and elusive
James J. Kershaw is listed as president of three of the companies, located
in Massachusetts, Tennessee and North Carolina. Two other companies share the
same vice president, Colleen Bornt. Extensive public record searches could not
locate either of them.
Record searches also failed to turn up information on Leonard T. Bayard, whose
firm bought Premier Executive Transport Services' Gulfstream. The address of
Bayard's firm is the Portland, Ore., office of attorney Scott Caplan.
Asked if his client is a real person, Caplan replied: "No comment."