A major story about a Columbia County court case has yet to hit the local press,* even though articles have already appeared in Time Magazine, USA Today, The Atlantic, The Associated Press, UPI, The Guardian, numerous blogs, and more than 250 other national and international publications.
Here’s a summary of the case from The Washington Post, whose reporting indicates that County Judge Paul Czajka presided over at least part if not all of the trial(s):
[D]etails of shadowy CIA flights that have emerged in a small Upstate New York courthouse in a billing dispute between contractors. The court documents offer a rare glimpse of the costs and operations of the controversial rendition program.
For all the secrecy that once surrounded the CIA’s program, a significant part of its operation was entrusted to very small aviation companies whose previous experience involved flying sports teams across the country.
The August 2003 flights—and dozens of others to locations such as Bucharest, Romania; Baku, Azerbaijan; Cairo; Djibouti; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Tripoli, Libya—were organized by Sportsflight, a one-man aircraft brokerage business on Long Island. It secured a plane from Richmor Aviation, based near the Columbia County Airport in Hudson, N.Y.** Richmor eventually sued Sportsflight for breach of contract. In the process, the costs and itineraries of numerous CIA flights became part of the court record.
In other cases, the government has invoked the “state secrets” privilege to shut down litigation over the CIA program, but the case in Columbia County proceeded uninterrupted in an almost empty courtroom. There were only two witnesses at the bench trial: Richmor President Mahlon Richards and the owner of Sportsflight, Donald Moss.
According to several of the articles cited above, Richmor was due some $6 million from the flights, but sued Sportsflight for $1.6 million in unpaid bills. But Richmor’s president seems to have felt that the government’s use of the planes had harmed the company, its employees and its clients:
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 jets’ owners “are afraid to fly in their own aircraft.”
The U.K.-based Guardian adds:
[I]n May 2002, contractors hired by the US government sought the use of a private Gulfstream jet for government missions. Richmor Aviation offered the N85VM, on the understanding that it should be in the air at any time given 12 hours' notice.
Over the next three years, this plane flew at least 55 missions for the US government, often to Guantánamo Bay, as well as to numerous destinations worldwide.
These destinations include places that have now been associated with the CIA’s secret prison programme: Kabul, where the CIA ran the notorious "Salt Pit" prison; Bangkok, where Abu Zubaydah was first taken and used as a guinea pig for "enhanced interrogation techniques"; Rabat, where prisoners were kept incommunicado and tortured by Moroccan agents who passed information to the US and Britain; and Bucharest, one of the European secret jail sites.
The testimony taken right here in Hudson included details which many legal analysts and human rights groups have been trying to find out, but which until now were typically suppressed by U.S. government invocations of “State secrets.” Again from the Post:
The more than 1,500 pages from the trial and appeals court files appear to include some sensitive material, such as logs of air-to-ground phone calls made from the plane. These logs show 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, Falls Church-based DynCorp, that worked for the CIA.
The AP article and others note that the flights were provided with special State Department letters which allowed them to deviate from flight plans, and apparently aided in the flights’ purposes avoiding detection. Prisoners were cynically referred to as “invitees” of the United States.
USA Today’s piece reminds readers of some of the history behind the euphemistic term, “rendition”:
President George W. Bush acknowledged the existence of the prison network in 2006, and the CIA director in 2009, Leon Panetta, said that the prisons were no longer in use. Detainees have claimed in legal actions that they were flown, often hooded and shackled, to the prisons, where some were exposed to simulated drowning known as waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques.
A commenter on the Post’s website cites the following from U.S. and military law sources, pertaining to renditions, particularly the Convention Against Torture (CAT) signed by Reagan in 1988:
Article 3 provides that no State Party 'shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.' The U.S. ratification of CAT was contingent on its understanding that this requirement refers to situations where it would be 'more likely than not' that a person would be tortured if removed to a particular country, a standard commonly used by U.S. courts when determining whether to withhold an alien’s removal for fear of persecution.
The Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998 implemented U.S. obligations under CAT Article 3.31 Section 2242 of the act announced U.S. policy 'not to expel, extradite, or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the United States.' The act further required all relevant federal agencies to adopt appropriate regulations to implement this policy.
Attorneys involved with the case expressed surprise in the published reports that no government official weighed in to keep the evidence secret.
* The Register-Star, whose offices are located just one block from the courthouse where this international story took place, has now hurriedly added the AP wire story to their website. It does not appear in its Thursday print edition. The story was dug up by a little-known British torture watchdog group, which obtained the court records and forwarded them to national publications.
** Published reports place Richmor Aviation in Hudson, but that is just its mailing address. The company is actually based in Ghent, operating out of the Columbia County airport off Route 9H.