Details Of CIA Operation Revealed In Civil Lawsuit

Details of a secret CIA program used to move suspected terrorists around the globe for interrogation and alleged torture were recently revealed in a New York courtroom. There, the owner of a private jet hired by the government to shuttle detainees was looking for payment for services rendered. Robert Siegel talks with Peter Finn of the Washington Post about his story.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: When a clandestine CIA operation gets caught up in a civil lawsuit between subcontractors, you expect a man from Langley to turn up on the doorsteps of the litigants explaining that this dispute will have to be settled with the utmost discretion. Well, that is precisely what did not happen in a lawsuit between a charter air service that supplies corporate jets and crews and a private aviation broker. When the charter company, Richmor Aviation, took the broker, SportsFlight Air, to court in upstate New York, claiming that SportsFlight never paid for flight time that it had reserved, the case unfolded publicly and indiscreetly.

The flight details that became evidence were flights transporting terror suspects to friendly countries for interrogation, the so-called secret renditions. An international human rights group called Reprieve, which is critical of the renditions program, learned about the case and tipped off some news organizations. Peter Finn writes about it today in The Washington Post.

Welcome to the program once again.

PETER FINN: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: What did you learn about the secret renditions program from evidence in this lawsuit that you didn't know before?

FINN: Well, I think the first thing we learned was cost. We knew that the CIA, through front companies and through legitimate contractors, had used a host of planes after 9/11 to transport or render terrorism suspects from one country to another. This gives us some sense, because it focuses on one plane, how much the whole program might've cost, which would be in the tens of millions. This one plane over three years they paid at least $6 million for it.

SIEGEL: Now, SportsFlight, the air travel broker, did not contract directly with the CIA but with DynCorp. Didn't both companies know that they were part of an operation that was being carried out with great secrecy? And it was the CIA behind it?

FINN: They said initially they didn't know, that they knew it was a government contract. They believed it was the Department of State, but they quickly learned that there was more to it than that. The flights were going to Guantanamo. They were going to various places in the Middle East and elsewhere. And crews talk among themselves, and so I think word filtered among those involved in this that they were part of a CIA program.

SIEGEL: And the evidence that came out in this case includes not just specifics flights and destinations, but also conversations from the plane to officials on the ground.

FINN: Yeah, that is the one perhaps most sensitive thing in the file, which is surprising that it was allowed to remain there perhaps. These are logs of phone calls to Langley, CIA headquarters, but also calls to the cell phones and home phones of CIA officials and other people - military contractors.

SIEGEL: Now, the mystery in all this is the absence of mystery. You quote the lawyer for the Plaintiff, Richmor Aviation, as saying that he kept on waiting for the government to step into this case. Don't they usually do that, and why didn't they do it in this case?

FINN: Well, they haven't said why they didn't do it. They declined to comment. I'm wondering, in fact, if they didn't know about it. This is, you know, upstate New York, Columbia County, a small courthouse. There's no jury. It's a bench trial. There's no one in the courtroom. And this thing proceeded. And it sat there for a long time before anyone noticed.

SIEGEL: And if I have this - just to clarify something. It wasn't just the jets that were being supplied by Richmor. It was also the crews. These were

FINN: Yes.

SIEGEL: these were not intelligence agents running the Gulf Stream, flying it from one country to the next. They were people who might on another day fly a corporate executive from one city to the other.

FINN: Or sports teams for that matter, yes. These were regular crews. They did have one stipulation, however, in one of the contracts. And that is that the crews could only be natural-born Americans. They could not be naturalized citizens and they could not be green card holders and obviously they could not be foreigners.

SIEGEL: Peter Finn, thank you very much for talking with us.

FINN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Peter Finn, a national security correspondent for The Washington Post.

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